Two state lawmakers who represent the Northwoods in the state Legislature heard many express concerns and frustrations over the proposed U.S. Highway 51 reconstruction project that is set to begin in Minocqua this spring.
Last week, contractor Pitlik and Wick was awarded a contract from the state to complete much of the construction work.
About 115 attended the meeting held at the town hall in Woodruff. A representative of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) was to have been present, but the department on Wednesday canceled the representative’s appearance.
State 34th Assembly District Rep. Rob Swearingen and State Sen. Tom Tiffany attended and listened to the concerns raised by members of the public.
The Highway 51 project has proved to be extremely controversial. Only Minocqua, one of the four towns to be impacted by the project, has agreed to the DOT’s plans. Hazelhurst, Woodruff and Arbor Vitae have not signed off on the portion of the project that goes through their towns.
“We don’t want to have anything to do with it,” Arbor Vitae Town Chairman Frank Bauers told the audience.
At the start of the meeting when a show of hands was requested to indicate how many in the audience favored the project, just two raised their hands – Pete Morgan and Gerry Inman.
Inman said there are good and bad parts to the project and many problems were solved with the help of Minocqua officials.
Too much power
“We can still try to keep working with the DOT on these problems, but the real problem rests with you,” Inman said while looking at Swearingen and Tiffany. “The Legislature has allowed the DOT and the DNR have too much power. When the Legislature approves a bill they too often leave the DOT or the DNR with the authority to interpret how the laws should be enforced. That gives the officials with those departments the ability to make their jobs more important and for them to increase their pay.”
Tiffany said it makes things extremely difficult for him when he goes to talk to DOT officials about concerns of Minocqua residents about the project when the town has already signed off on the project.
“The town has agreed to the project and I can’t tell them that the town’s vote on this is irrelevant,” Tiffany said. “That was the town’s decision.”
Lack of communication claimed
Many were frustrated with what they feel is a lack of communication by DOT officials. Many businesses along the construction route will lose driveways that provide direct access by customers to their businesses, but they feel the DOT is being too stubborn over the issue.
John Tonne, co-owner of Paul Bunyan’s in Minocqua, said he is going to lose one of his direct access points to his business from Highway 51 and will have some access to and from his business from off Old Highway 70.
“The big issue is over losing access. There’s also going to be a need for a stop light on Old Highway 70,” Tonne said. “Every time I try to talk to someone at the DOT about the situation they tell me they can’t do anything about it and they say I need to go to someone higher (in the DOT) and then I can’t get anyone higher up to talk or return my calls.”
Greg Harrold said he learned recently that the DOT has agreed to abandon as part of the project their plans to reconstruct a portion of the highway in the town into a four-lane roadway with a 50-foot gap in the median.
“They said they will rebuild that portion of the highway and keep it just two lanes,” Harrold said. “They said they want to go to the west side of Highway 51 with the project, but will have a significant impact on a number of businesses and homes.”
Divide and conquer
Town of Woodruff resident Todd Albano said it was unfortunate that town of Minocqua supervisors gave their approval to the portion of the highway project that goes through their town.
“The DOT purposely divided the project into four sections, even though it is really just one project, so they could ‘divide and conquer’ all of the towns,” Albano said. “The DOT has said the improvements are needed due to safety issues, but with what they are planning they will create a more dangerous situation.
“The one-size-fits-all approach of the DOT does not fit this project in the Northwoods,” Albano said. “They should just repave what we have, leave our businesses alone. Anything above that is a bridge to nowhere.”
Minocqua town supervisor Billy Fried said the town agreed to the project because there were many good elements included that the town did not want to lose. He also said the town board voted in favor of the project after the DOT sent a letter to the town stating that if they did not agree to the project within 30 days of their receiving the letter, it would be canceled.
“I believe the town thought about this a lot and felt that they could agree to this if the DOT would agree to work out questions that property owners had along the route,” Fried said. “Those questions to the DOT still have not been answered.”
Fried said DOT officials have said “we’ll get back to you, but they don’t get back to you. They send letters saying they can’t change things. They send letters to say they don’t have to talk to you.”
Fried also said the DOT doesn’t “work with people and there is a disconnect between Madison and the people locally that pay taxes.”
Minocqua property owner Mike Meyers, who is taking legal action against the DOT regarding the project, said, “the town board doesn’t have a clue as to how the business community will be impacted by this decision.
“The big thing is the DOT won’t talk to you,” Meyers said. “I have had no opportunity to mitigate or discuss the project with them. They won’t talk so we can reach a compromise or whatever. The town board made an ill-advised decision on this.”
Meyers said he had no choice but to get legal representation to fight the DOT plan.
Safety issue smokescreen
Others who spoke said the DOT has continuously claimed they need to do the project as they have proposed because of “safety issues.”
“But when you ask them for the statistics that illustrate what they say are the accidents that cause them to need to make these changes, they can’t or won’t produce them,” property owner Tom Weber said.
“They say they are doing it for safety, but it just doesn’t make sense,” Bob Jacobi who owns BJ’s Sports located on Highway 51, said. “I have two-and-a half driveways and they are going to reduce to that to one and a half. It will make it more dangerous for people to get in and out of my parking and for big trucks and vehicles to get in and out. It will hurt business because people will not be able to get in to my business.”
Cathy Bosacki of Chocolates and More said the DOT has used no common sense when it determines how much access a business will have after the project.
“Their position on this is it is all computer generated,” Bosacki said. “They don’t understand that in the Northwoods things are different from what they are in Madison. We have people visiting that have large SUVs, trailers, campers and boats. A driveway that a compact car can easily use in Madison doesn’t work up here.”
Swearingen said the DOT has told him that decisions on the Highway 51 project are not being made in Madison, but by people located in the DOT’s Rhinelander office.
Erik Johnson, a property owner along Highway 51, said DOT officials have told him that “this is the way we have done things in the past so that’s why we have to do it that way now” when it concerns the driveway access issue.
“This is such a unique area,” Johnson said. “They can’t just come in here and model this like other projects. As individuals we can’t fight them. We need you as state lawmakers to use your political push to help us, to be our representatives when this project is discussed.”
Still time for changes?
Tiffany said he didn’t want to give anyone false hope, but there still is time for changes to be made in the project by the DOT.
“Change orders are a reality in many highway projects,” Tiffany said.
Inman, who is an engineer agreed with Tiffany.
“The DOT will continue to work on the problems, but there have been cases where changes have been made up until the cement was poured,” Inman said. “And there have been some cases where they’ve ripped the concrete out to make changes.”
Both Swearingen and Tiffany said they will contact DOT officials and continue to lobby on behalf of the towns and their residents concerning the highway project.
“We can keep trying to talk to them and voice your concerns,” Tiffany said. “They need to know that there are still many problems with this project and they won’t go away and the people won’t go away, despite the DOT’s lack of communication.”
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.