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Major 2021 highway project slated in Portage

January 28, 2019

Two years from now, a state road improvement project will result in significant traffic congestion on one of Portage’s most-traveled thoroughfares.

But Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials say they hope the improvements on Highway 16-51 will result in safer, less bumpy driving and easier pedestrian access to places like the Levee walking trail and Riverside Park.

At Thursday’s “local officials” meeting for the Highway 16-51 project, DOT project supervisor Karla Knorr said the work has long been scheduled for 2021, and there’s no reason to think it will be delayed.

“We’re pretty much on final design,” she said.

A public open house on the project is scheduled for Thursday.

Aaron Steger, an engineer with KL Engineering in Madison and the project’s consultant manager, showed some of the features of the design, including:

Improvement of the Y-shaped intersection at Wisconsin and DeWitt streets, which basically entail eliminating the existing triangular traffic island and replacing it with lanes designed to direct traffic more precisely.Added pedestrian accommodations, including a crosswalk near DeWitt and Wisconsin streets, a 11-foot border space and sidewalk on DeWitt Street, and a raised median with a crosswalk to the existing stairway leading to the Levee trail at Wauona Trail and Wisconsin Street.Creation of a “pocket park” at the Wisconsin-DeWitt intersection, with tree plantings, bike racks and trash receptacles.No bike paths on the 16-51 corridor, but traffic patterns designed to encourage bicyclists to use Ontario and Thompson streets.A bigger culvert in the Portage Canal, to allow improved navigation of the waterway around DeWitt Street.

An estimated cost has not been established for the project, but it would be paid for mostly with federal money.

The city is likely to have a significant investment in it, however, because accommodating detours during the construction will entail major work on Ontario, East Wisconsin and Thompson streets and Wauona Trail.

According to information provided to the Portage Common Council at a Jan. 10 meeting on infrastructure-related debt, that project, planned for next year, will require the city to borrow roughly $600,000. The city also plans to borrow about $700,000 for scheduled improvements of West Conant Street in the same year.

Steger said transportation officials are aware of how much traffic the Highway 16-51 corridor carries, and that numerous businesses are located along that corridor. That’s why plans call for the project to be done in stages, and to include improvements in the driveways leading to the businesses.

DeWitt Street will be improved first, he said, with traffic detoured along Highway 16.

Wisconsin Street improvements will constitute the second stage, Steger said, which will entail detouring traffic from Highway 16-51. Cook and DeWitt streets in downtown Portage will be open, however, although people walking the Ice Age Trail will likely be detoured.

Common Council member Martin Havlovic asked about access to the Columbia County Health and Human Services building and the Aging and Disability Resource Center on East Mullett Street. Steger said access to the county’s new buildings along the Portage Canal will be preserved. In fact, one of the key reasons why traffic has picked up in the area is because of those buildings, he said.

Portage Police Lt. Richard Hoege expressed concern about pedestrian safety, particularly in the area of Wauona Trail and West Wisconsin Street. He suggested the use of rapid rectangular flashing beams, similar to those used to foster the safety of pedestrians who cross Wisconsin Street in downtown Portage to get to and from Portage Theatres.

Knorr noted that concerns such as these are the reason why the DOT holds public meetings about projects like these.

At previous public meetings on this project, many people expressed objections to the original plan of adding a roundabout at Wisconsin and DeWitt streets — so the roundabout was taken out of the plan. Also, public concerns about heavy truck traffic, and its likely incompatibility with bicycles, resulted in changing the project’s design to discourage bikes from using Highway 16-51.

Steger said Thursday’s public involvement meeting will include a presentation similar to the one given at the public officials’ meeting, in an “open house” format that will allow attendees to ask one-on-one questions of people who are overseeing the project.

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