Mapping a route to economic growth

Various transportation improvements aim to move food, fuel and feed throughout the I-41 Corridor

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch, New North B2B editor

April 2017

Humans have been schlepping goods and materials over miles of land and sea for thousands of years. From camels and reed boats to semitrailers and container ships, the need for safe, fast, convenient transport grows with each passing day.

It’s no different in northeast Wisconsin. To many commuters on our state’s highways, it probably seems like road construction projects have been going on since the dawn of man. No sooner does one stretch of smooth cruising open than another gets peppered with shrieking-orange barrels and yellow “Detour” signs that scoff mercilessly at drivers.

And because things that are new get used and eventually wear down, the thousand-year-war of infrastructure improvement is likely to continue. But such investment is critical to our region’s economy. For example, motorists in just Brown and Outagamie counties combined drive over 10 million miles per day, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

“There’s a lot of traffic through the Fox Cities,” said Mark Kantola, communications manager for the Wisconsin DOT office in Green Bay. “It’s one of the major players in the state’s economy, and there are lots of employers and businesses need that a quality transportation system to move their goods and services back and forth to market.”

Meanwhile, maritime shipping at the Port of Green Bay processes around two million tons of materials every year, and northeast Wisconsin’s two international airports together handle more than 800,000 passenger boardings each year, in addition to the various cargo flown in and out of each airport.

President Donald Trump cited revamping America’s crumbling infrastructure as one of his campaign platform planks and proposed investing $1 trillion. It wouldn’t be enough to crank up the country’s overall infrastructure grade of D+ to a more presentable B, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. ASCE gave the country’s highways a C+ because 1 out of every 5 miles of highway pavement nationwide needs fixing, it said, and estimated that the cost to upgrade America’s infrastructure is more than four times the amount the president suggested.

It could be a moot point, since the president’s preliminary federal budget recommends cutting the U.S. Department of Transportation funding by $2.4 billion, or about 13 percent. It also cuts the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and $175 million in government subsidies for commercial flights serving rural airports.

But in northeast Wisconsin, we keep on truckin’.

I-41 still a work in progress

Work on Interstate 41 in northeast Wisconsin has been ongoing for the past seven years, and travelers shouldn’t expect to stop seeing those cautionary 55 mph signs anytime soon. Currently, crews are resurfacing the 10 miles between Kaukauna and De Pere. A patchwork of repairs over time has led to parts of the road reaching the end of their lifespan – resulting in dips, gorges and overall deficient pavement.

The $14.4 million resurfacing project includes concrete repairs, shoulder grading, new traffic cameras and expanding the park-and-ride lot off County Road S in Brown County. New ramps at the Wrightstown weigh station as well as a truck lane between it and the northbound ramp at County Road U should smooth the entry process for truckers. Rehabilitating the bridges crossing Apple Creek is also part of the upgrade.

I-41’s change in status two years ago from U.S. highway to interstate between Green Bay and Milwaukee have led to the institution of cable guards – wire cables attached to poles – the first in this stretch and eventually the rest of I-41 between Green Bay and Oshkosh.

“Cable guards are proving to be one of the best safety devices on the highway. They can stop semi trucks,” Kantola said. “If you go off the road, you’ll hit the cable and not end up in the opposite lane of traffic.”

Resurfacing, at least, should be done by November 15.

“The I-41 Corridor connects 10 counties together – 25 percent of Wisconsin’s population – so I think that the corridor is vitally critical in terms of moving goods and people in and out of our state, particularly up to the northeast part of Wisconsin,” said Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach.

Tri-County Expressway

The Tri-County Expressway – also known as State Road 441 – is an 11-mile belt looping off I-41 from Fox Crossing to Little Chute around the greater Appleton area. It allows travelers to exit into parts of Appleton and surrounding communities without slogging through city streets. But what it doesn’t do is let northbound travelers on I-41 hop off and head west on U.S. Highway 10, and it doesn’t allow eastbound travelers on WIS 441 to hop onto I-41 to head north, without a circuitous journey.

The reconstruction project started three years ago and it’s expected to finish in 2020.

Altogether, the Tri-County Expressway reconstruction widens six miles of WIS 441/U.S. 10 from four lanes to six between Cold Spring Road and Oneida Street in Winnebago County.

The project also reconstructs five interchanges along that route: Appleton Road/WIS 47; Racine Road/County P; Midway Road/County AP; Oneida Street/U.S. 10; and the I-41 interchange. Additionally monumental, the Roland Kampo Bridge project constructed a second, parallel bridge over Little Lake Butte des Morts and adds merging lanes on I-41.

“It’s a major expansion, and will restore those missing movements to the west side,” Kantola said.

The new, four-lane bridge over Little Lake Butte des Morts opened last year. Now the old bridge is being reconditioned, so there will be two four-lane bridges.

“It will carry a lot more traffic than what was there,” Kantola said. The refurbished bridge will open in 2018.

In addition to making it easier and quicker for travelers and transporters of goods to get where they want to go, the project will make the route safer, according to the DOT. Crash rates on U.S. 10/WIS 441 are higher than averages across the state for like-sized freeways, and traffic is expected to increase over the coming decade.

The current amount of urban and commercial traffic have long outgrown the original bridge, Kantola said.

“That bridge wasn’t built to hold that many cars,” he said. “Anyone who’s gone across that bridge in the past few years knows it’s a constant point of congestion. So with this new bridge and expanding lanes, it’s going to be a lot more functional to the Fox Valley’s future.”

WIS 32/Ashland Avenue in Brown County

Starting this month through August, State Road 32 from Main Avenue in De Pere to the State Road 172 overpass in Ashwaubenon will be rerouted while the roadway is fully reconstructed and two bridges are replaced. They’ve simply worn out, according to the Wisconsin DOT.

The stretch will receive new storm sewers, pavement, new sidewalks, gutters and curbs, lighting and landscaping.

Appleton: Northland & Richmond

In Appleton, a hazardous intersection near Northland Mall will see some changes when a multi-lane roundabout is constructed later this summer.

The traffic light controlled intersection of Northland Avenue/County Road OO and Richmond Street/State Road 47 has a higher than usual accident rate, so the proposed roundabout and other improvements hope to lower those numbers. The area will be closed to traffic for about 10 weeks and is expected to begin after June.

Winneconne bridge replacement

Anglers and boaters should appreciate the work to be done on WIS 116 in downtown Winneconne this summer. A new bridge and fishing platforms are part of the project across the Wolf River, which starts in late June and puts the finishing touches on in September 2019.

The bridge will be a fixed bridge – rather than one that needs to be opened for boat traffic – so traffic and emergency vehicles moving through the downtown aren’t impeded.

The DOT indicated the existing bridge will stay open until the new bridge is finished.

Port of Green Bay

A broken petroleum pipeline between Green Bay and Milwaukee most of last year scrambled 2016 shipping numbers for the Port of Green Bay. Petroleum shipments rose by more than 1,400 percent over the past year.

Similarly, a shift from Canadian salt sources to American sources meant road salt shipments rose 40 percent. But exports decreased, and Port Director Dean Haen attributes that to the broken pipeline.

“Prior to the closure, US Venture exported diesel, gasoline and ethanol to other markets,” he said. “With the closure of the pipeline, the exports flipped to imports to meet the demand for petroleum products.”

Overall, the port dealt with some 1.8 million metric tons of materials such as coal, limestone, salt, petroleum products, liquid asphalt and tallow, wood pulp and large equipment.

Haen expects limestone and petroleum shipments to increase this year, but believes low natural gas costs will lead to less need for coal. He predicts demand for cement will decrease, due to the DOT wrapping up substantial portions of the I-41 construction project.

“The shipping industry continues to be the most cost-effective method of transportation for commodities,” Haen said. “The port is a vital component of our area economy.”

If the petroleum pipeline remains out of service, the amount of petroleum being shipped in through the port should rise this year, according to Haen.

Some 14 companies have ports along the Fox River in the Green Bay area, from Georgia-Pacific to Lafarge North America.

Presidential campaign messages that prioritized infrastructure came as welcome news to Haen months ago. “He (President Trump) was very pro-infrastructure, and the port industry is heavily dependent on dredge channels and dock walls and that kind of thing,” he said.

“But on the flip side, (the President) is also proposing cuts that affect the Great Lakes, the ports and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has funded our Cat Island Chain project and our closure of Renard Island and other things,” Haen said.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has facilitated dozens of projects in Wisconsin ranging from cleaning up toxins and wetland restoration to combating invasive species. Trump’s preliminary budget cuts the program altogether.

Gov. Scott Walker has said he would try to convince the administration of the importance of the initiative.

Appleton International Airport

The addition of a third major airline carrier this summer to Appleton International Airport’s repertoire should make connecting with the greater global network easier for inbound and outbound passengers, said Patrick Tracy, marketing manager for the airport. It should also boost business travel.

American Airlines joins major carriers United and Delta and low-cost carrier Allegiant Air at Appleton International. American will fly two daily 50-seat flights to Chicago beginning July 5.

“For us who live here, it gives us more options out into the United States, and into the world,” Tracey said.

The addition of American should make Appleton more appealing for business travelers whose companies’ preferred airline is American. “Most big companies have preferred-airline agreements, and their travelers are directed to fly on those airlines because the company gets a discount,” Tracey said. “If you have American Airlines as your preferred carrier, you want your travelers to fly American Airlines, and (until July 5) we didn’t have that option.”

Last summer the airport opened its new U.S. Border & Customs Protection facility. This past January, it opened a new standalone rental-car facility, steering rental-car customers out of the terminal and locating counters closer to the vehicles.

Last year, ATW projected a $676 million economic impact on the Fox Valley, according to a Wisconsin DOT Bureau of Aeronautics study. Planes at ATW carried 20 million pounds of freight, and flew 35,000 flights carrying some 270,000 people, according to the study.

In late fall, renovations will begin in the terminal to enhance ticket counters, the restaurant, gift shop, the security area, and the guest waiting area.

While business and leisure travel took a hit in the years around the recession, Tracy said ATW is recovering.

“We’ve had five years of steady growth. 2015 was the first time in 10 years we had over a half-million passengers to the airport,” Tracey said. “It’s taken us a couple years to climb back up to pre-recession travel levels.”

Green Bay Austin Straubel Int’l. Airport

Austin Straubel International Airport added two words to its name last year, and they’re two words that are paying off: Green Bay.

The airport changed its official name to Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport last year. To illustrate exactly why, airport director Tom Miller gave the anecdote of the service group that held its national convention in Green Bay, with people flying in from all over the country. Two participants who booked online reportedly found themselves at an airport in Austin, Texas, instead of Austin Straubel.

“There were a number of airlines who have or had no idea where Austin Straubel was until they either Googled it or went onto their own reservation systems,” Miller said. Not to mention, it clarifies matters for the traveler.

Another big development for GRB in the past year was its new separate international arrivals facility, which it’s long wanted and needed, Miller said. Prior to its opening, customs was located in the terminal. But passengers weren’t processed there – they were processed on the ramp.

“It was not terribly convenient with the weather, and was not terribly convenient for international travelers,” Miller said.

The new facility hasn’t been open a year yet and is already on schedule to clear 36 more international flights than usual, about a 9 percent increase.

“We’ve had aircraft from all points of the globe, including South America, Canada, Europe, Middle East and Africa,” Miller said.

On a $12.8 million annual operating budget, Austin Straubel was estimated to contribute a $111 million economic impact to the greater Green Bay area, according to the DOT’s Bureau of Aeronautics study.