County Trunk J: State Highway 164

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The Asphalt Rebellion – Area residents fighting Highway 164 widening project are part of an increasingly vocal movement nationwide challenging road plans that threaten their way of life – For foes, plan isn’t progress, it’s destruction

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – Tuesday, November 16, 1999
Author: LARRY SANDLER, Journal Sentinel staff

Standing on the farm where he grew up, David Rankin looked out at the highway that’s always been there and the protest signs that showed up this year.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Rankin, a Lisbon mechanic. “I’ve seen all the changes here, 62 years of it. I can’t stop progress. You really can’t stop progress. But I think there’s going to be a lot of upset people when they find out the road’s going to be in their front porch.”

A lot of people who live along state Highway 164 in Waukesha and Washington counties are already upset. And even if they can’t stop progress, they’re doing all they can to stop this particular four-lane version of it.

The neighbors’ crusade against widening the newly designated state highway from two lanes to four is the latest example of a national movement dubbed “the asphalt rebellion.” And the rebels are armed with more than yard signs.

From Wauwatosa Road to the Kickapoo Valley, from S. 27th St. to the Baraboo Hills, from Lincoln Memorial Drive to La Crosse and along dozens of other roads across the country, Internet-savvy neighbors and town boards are joining forces with professional activists and renegade traffic engineers to challenge state transportation departments and road builders.

They are mounting increasingly sophisticated — and increasingly successful — campaigns to prevent roads from being built or expanded in directions that threaten their homes and farms. And they are talking to each other.

“We are using the same strategy, the same information, the same model” as groups fighting the widening of Wauwatosa Road in Mequon and of U.S. Highway 12 in Dane and Sauk counties, said Jeffrey Gonyo, spokesman for the citizens group that has mobilized against widening Highway 164.

That group’s trademark is displayed in David Rankin’s front yard and in the yards of many of his neighbors: a small white sign with a red circle and a slash through the words “4 lanes.”

The controversy focuses on a stretch of road that starts as Waukesha County Highway J at I-94, passing businesses, subdivisions and office parks on its way to Capitol Drive. Then the road becomes Highway 164, curving through rolling hills and fields, punctuated by occasional concentrations of homes and businesses, into Washington County and up to state Highway 60.

Not long ago, all of this two-lane road was called county Highway J in both counties. But under a deal reached last year, the state took over the stretch from Capitol to Highway 60 and started studying whether it should be widened. The same deal called for Waukesha County to widen the stretch from I-94 to Capitol, then hand that over to the state as well.

That deal reflects the highway’s potential as a major north-south route between Waukesha and Washington counties, linking I-94 with U.S. Highway 41 and connecting the growing communities of Waukesha, Pewaukee, Sussex , Slinger and Hartford, said Kenneth Yunker, assistant director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

The commission has recommended expanding the road to four lanes, based on standards that say four lanes can be justified by an average of 7,000 cars a day in rural areas and 13,000 cars a day in urban or suburban areas, said Bryan Bliesner, state Department of Transportation project manager.

Traffic already tops those levels in Waukesha County but not in Washington County, Bliesner said. However, projections suggest traffic on the Washington County stretch will grow about 70% in 25 years, he added.

Marijean Janzer has seen the traffic grow as it zips past her home in Richfield’s tiny Pleasant Hill community. She knows it will keep growing. That’s why she doesn’t have a protest sign in her yard.

“Nobody likes progress in their own backyard,” Janzer said. “We don’t like it (the proposed widening), because it would take part of our (front) yard. But I don’t see a way around it.”

But the traffic is only heavy in the morning and evening rush hours, and light the rest of the day, said James Burant, owner of the Pleasant Hill Tap. The 109-year-old tavern is built close to the highway and would likely be leveled by any expansion.

Across the street, surrounded by the toys of her three small children, Shelia Hansen fears her home will suffer the same fate. Hansen said she and her husband bought the 137-year-old former cheese factory from his mother “because we want the kids to grow up where their dad grew up.”

Like Hansen, Robert Deede would like to see an alternative that doesn’t “come right through the center of my house,” which stands on a scenic hill in Sussex .

“I built the house many years ago,” said Deede, a retired millwright. “Raised my family here. Now, in the twilight of my career, I want to live in my house.”

Gonyo says Hansen and Deede could stay in their homes, and Burant could keep his bar, if the state follows the recommendations of his organization, the Highway J Citizens Group.

The group has proposed building a new road along an electric power line right of way in Menomonee Falls, avoiding homes and businesses. The Transportation Department has asked the planning commission to study that alternative.

Menomonee Falls Village President Joe Greco has blasted the alternate plan as a not-in-my-backyard proposal that could threaten wetlands. Gonyo said Menomonee Falls residents would benefit from the alternate route, and wetlands also could be threatened by widening Highway 164.

In addition to the alternate route, Gonyo said the state could improve traffic flow and safety on Highway 164 by adding turning lanes and stoplights at major intersections and cutting the speed limit to 45 mph.

An afternoon drive along the highway last week showed traffic backs up mainly at intersections, many of which are controlled by stop signs rather than stoplights. And federal figures show three of every five traffic deaths in Wisconsin occur on two-lane roads with 55-mph speed limits, like Highway 164.

In designing its alternate plan, the citizens group has downloaded safety data and traffic studies from the Internet, and has relied on the advice of Walter Kulash, a Florida-based traffic engineer who also aided the Wauwatosa Road and Highway 12 opponents, Gonyo said.

Kulash is part of a band of engineers and planners who challenge established guidelines that suggest wider roads are safer, and who urge greater sensitivity to neighborhoods. Some of those engineers are rising through the ranks at state transportation departments, said Rob Kennedy, state director of the New Transportation Alliance.

Kennedy’s group, which is also aiding the highway opponents, is a coalition of environmentalists and community activists affiliated with the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a media-savvy Washington think tank whose studies typically critique highway expansion and support public transit, bicycle paths and pedestrian walkways.

About 20 to 25 times a year, people who live near a planned Wisconsin road project call the New Transportation Alliance for help, Kennedy said.

That trend worries Tom Walker, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association and a former Transportation Department official.

While residents have “a truly legitimate concern about the transportation system in their neighborhood,” Walker said, “My biggest concern is the external political agenda that’s coming in and taking advantage of the situation.”

Part of that agenda is what Walker calls an “ideological” belief that highway expansion encourages urban sprawl by providing an incentive for far-flung development. But Walker and the planning commission’s Yunker contend that stopping road expansion would only worsen congestion as development continues.

One thing Walker, Kennedy and the Transportation Department’s Bliesner agree on is that highway opposition movements have been growing in recent years — largely as a result of federal laws requiring more public participation — and that transportation officials are paying more attention to what they say.

The Milwaukee County freeway system was built by bulldozing city neighborhoods “with standard 1960s insensitivity,” Walker said. Now transportation officials must hold public hearings, consider land-use impacts and add landscaping to meet community demands, he said.

As a result of local opposition in the last two years, the Transportation Department has abandoned plans to widen S. 27th St. in Milwaukee and has delayed plans to widen Wauwatosa Road. Milwaukee County officials have changed some aspects of Lincoln Memorial Drive reconstruction.

Also, state plans for an $80 million highway through La Crosse appear to have been shelved, if not abandoned, after residents voted by a 2-1 ratio against the project in a referendum.

But neighbors have lost many other battles, Kennedy said. And controversies continue over widening Highway 12 and rebuilding state Highway 131 in Vernon County, among others.

As for Highway 164, Bliesner says a final decision on the project is expected sometime next year. And neighbors like Shelia Hansen are still fighting, but they realize victory is far from certain.

“We’re hoping, but there’s not a lot we can do,” Hansen said. ———— Local and state officials will hold a joint hearing on the Highway 164 project at 7:30 tonight in the Hamilton High School gymnasium, W220-N6151 Town Line Road, Lisbon. Caption: Chart JOHN PINCHARD Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin Department of Transportation Crowded lanes According to the state Department of Transportation, traffic on the Waukesha County portion of Highway 164 already meets the standard for expansion to four lanes — 7,000 cars a day in a rural area or 13,000 cars a day in the suburbs — while Washington County traffic is projected to grow into that range. LOCATION AVERAGE DAILY TRAFFIC CURRENT* PROJECTED FOR 2025 Waukesha County North of Capitol Drive 10,000 17,000 South of County Highway VV 12,000 19,000 North of County Highway VV 14,000 23,000 Washington County North of County Highway Q 7,200 12,500 North of state Highway 167 6,400 11,000 South of state Highway 175 4,700 7,800 * Waukesha County figures are from 1997; Washington County figures are from 1998. Map JOHN PINCHARD Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Highway J Citizens Group Which way to Washington County The state Department of Transporation wants to widen state Highway 164 to four lanes, turning it into the major north-south route between Waukesha and Washington counties. But residents opposed to the widening have persuaded the state to study building a new road parallel to county Highway Y. State’s widening plan Community group plan Photo ELIZABETH FLORES STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A sign protesting the Highway 164 project sits in the front yard of David Rankin’s farm. The sign is the trademark of the Highway J Citizens Group, which has mobilized against the state transportation project. A final decision on the matter is expected next year. Photos color 1, 2 ELIZABETH FLORES STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Above: Shelia Hansen of the Pleasant Hill community in Richfield stands along busy Highway 164, the site of a proposed road widening project. Hansen and her family, who remodeled a 137-year-old former cheese factory, fear they will lose their home if the state highway project proceeds. Top: James Burant, owner of the Pleasant Hill Tap, may lose his tavern if Highway 164 is expanded.
Memo: For graphic see microfilm or bound file