The Wisconsin Department of Transportation project is the approximately 13-mile stretch of U.S. 14 from the state line to the intersection of Wisconsin Highway 11 and County Highway K, north of the village of Darien.
According to the DOT, that stretch of roadway carries between 4,500 and 8,200 vehicles daily. About 10 percent of the traffic is large trucks, which the department says have increased the traffic volume, deteriorated the roads and created safety problems.
Plans for rerouting U.S. 14 began in 2009, and originally construction was slated to run from 2014 to 2017. Michael Pyritz, a DOT communications manager, said bid-letting for the project should begin in September 2019. Construction is currently scheduled to start in 2020.
He said the project’s next step is to complete the National Environmental Policy Act process, which assures the project meets environmental requirements.
As part of its highway reconfiguration plan, the DOT purchased the antique mall on the square. The building -- formerly Waal’s department store, which was in business for 94 years -- was razed over the summer.
The mall’s removal is part of the plan to eliminate all right-hand turns on the village square, making it easier for the drivers of large trucks, which have clipped traffic signs while maneuvering the square.
“I don’t see a big problem with construction (for the U.S. 14 project) coming in, but I don’t think it was necessary,” said Terri Todd, owner of Lake Area Family Hair on Kenosha Street in Walworth, of the antique mall’s demolition. “If a truck driver can’t make a turn, the driver should go back to school to learn how to drive a semi-truck or use a bypass.”
“(T)earing down the antique mall building four or five years before new construction adds insult to injury,” reader Charles Ebeling posted to a Highway 14, Walworth, Wisconsin Facebook page. “A generation of young people will grow up amid debris for the sake of straightening out a road through the center of town that will still require stop signs and pedestrian care of trucks, probably still moving but faster through the village. This is not a solution, but social destruction and wasted resources.”
Many Walworth residents think an even bigger problem with the project surfaced with one of the DOT’s route options. While an east alternative plan retains the square and keeps the traffic pattern the same, a west alternative moves the highway close to a drop-off site for students at Walworth Elementary School, 121 Beloit St.
The second option, the west alternative, was adopted by the Walworth village board in 2011.
Walworth Joint School District 1 Administrator Mary Ann Kahl, who began her job in July, said the school district formed a task force in 2009 to work on finding an alternative to a route that would bring a busy highway that close to the school.
“I won’t say it’s complicated, but it’s complex,” Kahl said of the effect of the DOT option on the school. “The safety issue, of course, concerns us most, but there’s also the environmental impact -- the additional noise, additional fumes and exhaust from truck traffic. There’s always a worry that with significant truck traffic, some type of spill will occur.”
A grassroots campaign in opposition to the route continues.
School board President Kelly Freeman has contacted everyone from Gov. Scott Walker to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers about the issue.
“Local congressmen haven’t helped. We’re all alone here,” said Freeman, a lifelong resident of the village and a school board member for over three decades, who vows to continue to oppose the route.
“First plans were for the highway coming within 38 feet of the building, then 47 feet, then 52 feet, now 68 feet. That’s still much too close,” she said.
Freeman said she’s optimistic by nature, but frustrated by the actions of the DOT and the village board.
“We shouldn’t be divided like this,” she said. “We’re all here for our children and the benefit of the village. Why are we doing all this for trucks? What do trucks do for Walworth?”
Tom Connelly, a village trustee, knows the U.S. 14 issue is on a lot of minds -- he even based his campaign on it.
“No one here in the last 50 years is happy about truck traffic downtown,” Connelly said.
He realizes the west end route option adopted by the village board isn’t popular.
“I’m not with it a hundred percent, but there are a couple of things I do like about it. It has a straight line going north and south instead of going around the square, it’s village owned, it retains the angle parking,” he said. “But people are generally against it, as I’ve heard when I was going door to door campaigning.
With approval of the village board, Connelly is exploring an alternative truck route that would take semi-trucks south from U.S. 14 on County K in the town of Sharon to Wisconsin Highway 67 east.
He’s met with county officials and currently is meeting with officials from Sharon and the town of Walworth.
A 2012 board task force had indicated this was the least expensive alternative and could be implemented quickly.
Pyritz said public input has shaped reconfiguration plans. Since 2009, the DOT has held four public involvement meetings, four stakeholders meetings and one school board meeting, he said.
“Based on these meetings and other public comments, the DOT has made a series of design changes to address concerns, which includes increasing the distance between U.S. 14 and the (Walworth Elementary) school from the original design. The DOT will continue to work with the community to balance the needs of the village, school, business and residents while designing a safe and efficient roadway to accommodate all users, including pedestrians, bikes, cars and trucks,” he wrote in an email. “The DOT must seek approval from the Federal Highway Administration to ensure that we have not only met all environmental requirements, but that all alternatives have been appropriately considered and shared with the public.”
Right now, however, any decision is still years away.
“Construction, at the earliest, is scheduled for 2020, but state budget cuts could add five to seven years more,” Connelly said. “It’s not written in stone.”