DOT gets earful at roundabout information meeting in town of Leeds

December 14, 2017 GMT

The Department of Transportation’s open meeting Tuesday at the Leeds Town Hall was intended to provide details on upcoming construction but attendees had plenty of opinions on the project, too, leading to an admonishment from the Columbia County Board Highway Committee chairman.

“This is an informational meeting, not a gripe session,” James Foley said.

In one of the hall’s conference rooms, with construction plan diagrams posted in four places around the room, Foley began the program at 5 p.m. with about 80 total attendees as late-comers continued to arrive.

DOT Senior Project Development Engineer Gregory Payne stood at the front of the room, describing the plans for the installation of a roundabout at the intersection of Highways 22, 51 and 60, giving an update of the design schedule and building plan, with three to six months of construction planned for the summer of 2022.

Over the next half-hour, Foley began to be drowned out by side commentary around the room as he addressed a line of questioning primarily from a group at a front-row table, asking what the slowdown in traffic would do for those in the area trying to get out of driveways and onto the highway.

Columbia County Public Safety Committee Chairman Kirk Konkel of Portage, standing at the back of the room, asked about alternative routes for traffic, saying, “It’ll be backed up to Dane County.”

Payne directed the most persistent questioners at the front row to another DOT staffer for more direct answers to their questions. After 40 minutes, he ended the group address to allow attendees to break off and personally ask questions of the dispersed DOT representatives around the room.

“Originally, this plan looked a lot different from how it does now,” said Town of Wyocena board supervisor Ralph Levzow, who owns a farm on Highway 22 with his wife, Becky.

“I think that it is a legitimate point that a lot of people have made here: When you have diversion from the interstate, how is that going to impact the backup of traffic how they see it?” said Becky Levzow, who explained that she has heard officials say that there are plans for needed repairs on Highway 22 one year and then another.

“But we need safe roads. These are main arterials to get people to work and recreation.”

“They need to do something with these intersections because there are too many accidents,” Ralph Levzow said.

The Levzows, along with others, point to the frequency of appearances by the UW Hospital Medflight in the area as an indication of the number and seriousness of crashes at those intersections.

At the end of the formal presentation, Payne asked for input specifically pertaining to potential concerns with construction hazards, like septic systems and drainage tiles. Though outside those specifics, many residents concluded that public input was a moot point, saying as much out loud.

“I’ve been at other public-involved meetings where someone brought up another problem and we were able to create a project to address that problem,” said Payne, as the room was clearing. “There is a lot of value to these meetings.”

One hurdle with the proposal is that many drivers, particularly in Wisconsin, may have had a lifetime of driving without ever seeing a roundabout and are not keen on seeing one replace a four-way-stop.

“It’s challenging,” Payne said. “A lot of people have misconceptions about roundabouts and I think if you go and just drive a few, they handle traffic so well, and the safety benefits — basically eliminating T-bone crashes — it definitely warrants their applications.”

Several attendees asked why the DOT doesn’t avoid the issue and build an overpass, letting traffic speed on through. While Payne agreed that ideally, that would be nice at every intersection, that is prohibitively expensive. The current project is slated to be more than 50 percent funded by a federal highway safety grant.

Payne pointed to successful roundabouts in the area, including one in Waunakee roundabout that takes more vehicle volume with about 19,000 vehicles per day on Highway 19, compared with 12,000 on Highways 51 and 22.

“There’s a bunch around Madison, on the southwest side near County Road M and Junction Road, so it is not uncommon to have a roundabout handling this much traffic,” Payne said. “It doesn’t, at first, seem intuitive that the roundabout would operate very well, but it does. When you’re slowing everyone down, that merge becomes a lot easier. So if you’re merging onto a road at 60 miles per hour, you need 10 to 12 seconds to get into it, but when you’re in the roundabout, you only need 4 seconds.”

On a folding table with information provided by the DOT was also a comment box, which Foley hoped attendees would make use of, as opposed to just walking out frustrated.

“Some will and some won’t and as you heard tonight that some are pretty well set in their ways as they will tell you,” Foley said. “There are some people that will never be satisfied and yes, it will slow traffic — you can’t go from 55 to 15 and not slow down — but we’re not going to have the number of fatalities. We have (had) a number of them out there.”