By Kellen Olshefski

Staff Writer

The long-awaited Highway 12 expansion project gained some steam June 30 after Gov. Scott Walker signed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the project into the State Budget Bill.

The EIS will help the Department of Transportation determine which option is best for the improvement of the stretch of Highway 12 running between Elkhorn and Whitewater.

An EIS is essentially a lengthy study required by the National Environmental Policy Act before any major federally funded project can be built. It aids in the decision-making process by considering and examining issues that may impact the environment and surrounding communities.

President of the Greater Whitewater Committee Jeffery Knight said the key is evaluating traffic counts along Highway 12, potential direct routes of the highway, and finding the most safe and economical trip for drivers.

Knight explained the direction was for the DOT to do it within its funding and while it does a number of EISs each year, as they look at each project for funding, those that have the greatest needs receive the money.

“Completing this road will put safety first and also strongly look at economic development, which is really the catalyst of this need,” he explained

Proposed plans include the widening of the highway to four lanes along its existing route and an extension of the current freeway that comes into Elkhorn from Lake Geneva, through the Township of Sugar Creek.

According to a 2011 report from the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), weekday traffic south of County A totaled between 12,000 and 13,700 drivers, close to the 14,000 drivers the existing two-lane highway was designed to accommodate.

In their 2035 highway system plan, the SEWRPC projects traffic volumes along this stretch to be approximately 21,000 drivers per day, 7,000 over the highway’s current average weekday design capacity.

The extension of the current Highway 12 freeway was recommended originally in state and regional plans in the mid-60s, and also in the 1973 Walworth County Jurisdictional Highway System Plan, according to the report.

The SEWRPC report lists merits for both alternatives.

The widening of the current section between Elkhorn and Whitewater would allow for lower construction costs, about $64.2 million, compared to $116.7 million for the freeway extension, and potentially less property acquisition.

Extending the current freeway system would allow for a higher-speed facility, leading to better accessibility, would be safer as freeway crash rates are half that of four-lane arterials, and would cause less disruption to adjacent businesses and residences.

Knight explained the process will include hearings and open process, though the DOT will come back with a final recommendation.

Knight continued in saying SEWRPC has done a fairly good job, has a high reputation for their work, and work closely with Walworth County and that though the DOT review might be somewhat different, their numbers will come out fairly similar.

Knight added SEWRPC did an excellent job with its Walworth County long-range transportation committee in the fact that it stressed the importance of the EIS occurring immediately last year, having a number of issues concerning safety and traffic count well written and documented.

Knight also explained while some EISs can be fairly quick and others can take an expanded period of time, he’s confident the DOT, in its normal process, will go as quickly as it can.

Once the EIS is completed, the project will compete with other road construction projects around the state based on need.

“The warrants are pretty straight forward,” Knight said. “If you look at Walworth County’s growth, it’s one of the fastest growing counties in the state.”

Knight acknowledged Walker and the state legislature, as well as Walworth County people and businesses that worked so hard on this, for taking a look at Walworth County and looking at it seriously.

“It was a greater unified effort to make sure that people know how serious we are that this project needs to get done,” he said.

 
 

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