New London officials push for Highway 15 bypass
Municipalities await action 18 years later
By Scott Bellile
New London city officials are renewing pressure on Wisconsin lawmakers to build the proposed State Highway 15 bypass.
The move comes ahead of January, when Tony Evers will assume office as governor, and subsequently the Wisconsin Department of Corrections will decide whether to build a youth juvenile correctional facility near the highway in the town of Hortonia.
City Administrator Kent Hager announced last month the city would send a letter to state politicians urging them to approve the bypass project and end “a long and drawn out process.”
“Hopefully we’re going to be able to get some more movement with the new administration, but who knows,” Hager said during the Nov. 13 New London City Council meeting. “But we’re going to give it another shot, see what we can do with putting ourselves up front with the current governor again and our new governor-elect coming up in January. So we’re giving it all we can. And anytime you see a state legislator, please, please remind them that the Highway 15 project’s very important for our community.”
The proposed four-lane, 11-mile bypass would connect New London to Greenville, bypassing Hortonville. All three communities have gone on record in support of the project.
Wisconsin Department of Transportation has completed studies and bought land in preparation for the project. But after previously listing a 2018 start date, the DOT’s website no longer offers a construction schedule.
Lawmakers have not allocated funding to construct the bypass in the state budget.
Letter outlines concerns
New London Mayor Gary Henke on Nov. 27 mailed a letter explaining his concerns to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Democratic Gov.-elect Evers and eight state legislators: Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon; Rep. Kevin Petersen, R-Waupaca; Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton; Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna; Rep. Mike Rohrkaste, R-Neenah; Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville; Rep. Amanda Stuck D-Appleton; and Rep. Gary Tauchen, R-Bonduel.
“We have been waiting for 18 years since this process began, and we are still waiting,” Henke wrote. “The project is exceedingly important to the citizens of New London as well as the surrounding areas. The congestion on Highway 15 continues to worsen and it is affecting commute times both to and from the Fox Cities for hundreds of workers trying daily to get to their jobs. … It is essential that the employees of these businesses have a safe, uncongested highway on which to commute.”
Henke wrote recent developments in Hortonville that increased highway congestion include the Gilbert’s Sentry Foods grocery store and an expansion at MidCon Products.
He anticipates more congestion in Hortonville once construction crews complete the Cottages on Main housing development, the East Village at Steinert Plaza strip mall, which will include a Dollar General store, and the All World Ford auto dealership east of Hortonville.
“Every day that passes, more traffic builds and the danger this deficient highway represents grows,” Henke wrote. “The traffic is becoming so severe and so daunting that I am personally aware of people that sacrifice more time to travel other routes just to avoid the danger that Highway 15 now brings.”
Fourteen people have been killed in 13 crashes on State 15 between Hortonia and Grand Chute since 2001, when the DOT completed a corridor plan for the proposed bypass, according to the Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory.
Besides safety issues, Henke expressed concern over municipalities losing property tax revenue. The state is buying private land to make way for the proposed bypass without initiating construction.
“While the City of New London has not had any property removed from the tax roll, we have experienced two churches that have been forced to move from their locations on Highway 15 into the city,” Henke stated. “This has resulted in approximately $13,000 decrease in property taxes collected by the city since the churches have occupied previously private tax-paying structures.”
The two churches shared a building in Hortonia near Cross Road that is now demolished.
Faith Christian Church moved into Northland Electrical Services’ former building in the Northeast Industrial Park.
Iglesia de Cristo Ministerios Elim now occupies the former Rivers Edge Marine building a few blocks from downtown New London.
Rep. Stuck: Delays ‘simply unacceptable’
The Press Star emailed the 10 politicians who received Henke’s letter for comment Monday, Dec. 3.
Appleton Democrat Stuck, representing Wisconsin’s 57th Assembly District that includes Appleton and Menasha, was the sole respondent.
“Unfortunately the situation in New London with the delays to the Highway 15 project is no surprise,” Stuck stated in an email. “While major highway projects take time to complete, the delay to the Highway 15 project is simply unacceptable and is a result of a failure by Governor Walker’s Administration and the Republican Legislature. We have known about the impending shortfall in our transportation fund for some time, and Governor Walker’s 2011 Budget even created a bi-partisan [Transportation Finance and Policy] Commission to study the issue and suggest options to fix it.”
Stuck said the state GOP passed four biennial budgets, including three after receiving the commission’s transportation report, that all failed to adequately fund transportation infrastructure.
“The result of this failure, coupled with a prioritization of southeast Wisconsin projects, including shifting $90 million to build new highways for the Foxconn project, has been delayed projects in the rest of the state and an increased reliance on borrowing, thereby shifting the cost of today’s road projects to future generations,” Stuck stated.
Youth prison could increase traffic
Two weeks ago, news broke that the DOC considers a 9.4-acre parcel just southeast of the State 15 and U.S. Highway 45 intersection a top site for one of several proposed youth prisons statewide.
The regional prisons would replace the shuttering Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls, both located in Irma.
Henke did not mention the prison in his letter. But he told the Press Star last week that the possibility of more traffic to and from the facility via State 15 increases the urgency of constructing a bypass.
“I think it’s absolutely essential before this [proposed prison project] even starts that they get Highway 15 done,” Henke said.
Henke supports having a youth prison located right outside of New London. He said it would bring jobs and economic development to the area.
“It’s going to be like having another business or industry in town,” Henke said. “It shouldn’t affect city services. It’s going to have more people moving into the area, not necessarily New London, but the entire area.”
The DOC indicated in a map the proposed site is a quarter-mile east of State 15, in a swamp along a railroad.
Hager told the Press Star the DOT owns land along the highway immediately south of Frick Ford. He speculated that the DOC’s map may be inaccurate, and the state would actually build the prison along State 15 adjacent to Frick Ford if the Hortonia site were approved.
Tristan Cook, communications director for the Wisconsin DOC, did not respond to a message requesting clarification.
However, Cook said the DOC will wait until after Evers takes office to finalize where the state’s juvenile correctional facilities will be built.
The DOC will also wait to decide how many facilities will be built statewide and whether the facilities will be single-sex or co-ed, Cook said.