LODI – For more than a decade, a lot of people have agreed that something needs to be done about Columbia County Highway V in the unincorporated community of Okee, just north of Lodi.
But the staunch and sometimes passionate disagreement on exactly what needs to be done became evident Wednesday, when more than 60 people gathered at Lodi Middle School for a public engagement session.
Engineers from the Eau Claire-based Ayres Associates and the Columbia County Board’s Highway Committee hosted the session, which focused on the stretch of about a mile, between Highway 113 east to Rapp Road.
There are buildings on both sides of the road in the Okee area, including year-round homes and restaurants. Particularly on Friday nights, when the restaurants offer popular fish-fries, there are people parked on the shoulders on both sides of Highway V, resulting in serious traffic congestion.
“The Sheriff’s Department has a video of a sheriff’s deputy trying to get through there on a Friday night, and he couldn’t,” said Columbia County Highway Commissioner Chris Hardy.
In addition to access for emergency vehicles such as fire trucks and ambulances, other concerns include lack of safe space for pedestrians and bicycle riders, said Eric Sorensen, an Ayres engineer who has been working on the design of Highway V improvements for many years.
Concerns remain, too, about sight distance and safety at the intersection with V and Highway 113 at the west end of the area, said Ayres Engineer Dan Schrum.
The project, as currently proposed, includes the following components:
- Realignment of the V and 113 intersection to improve visibility and sight distance. However, the state has no available money to address the issue by lowering Highway 113, Schrum said.
- A new Wisconsin and Southern Railroad crossing near V and 113, with gates.
- On the western segment of Highway V in Okee, curb and gutter, with angle parking on the south side of the road and new sidewalks on both sides.
- A new deck on the causeway over Lake Wisconsin, but no change in the causeway’s level. There also would be new guardrail on the causeway and elimination of the existing raised sidewalks.
The preliminary cost estimate is about $1.3 million, with the state and the county sharing the cost.
The project has a long and storied history.
It was 2003, Sorensen said, when county transportation officials designed V as “a road in need of significant repair” because of serious pavement deterioration and drainage problems. The County Board’s Highway Committee applied for federal surface transportation money – and heard, in 2007, that the money would be awarded for design only, not for construction.
At that time, the project area extended four miles, including an area east of Okee to Columbia County Highway J.
In 2012, the county scrapped the Okee portion, due to higher county road priorities and widespread opposition on the part of neighboring property owner. The eastern portion of Highway V, however, was refurbished in 2015.
Martha Dodge Alberti said she opposed the project then, and she opposes it now.
She said she was one of the people who circulated a petition against installing curb and gutter, largely because she didn’t want the area looking “urban.”
“Some of us live in the country because we like it,” she said.
But the dialogue at Wednesday’s session included, at times, contradictory opinions as to what should be done with the roadway.
Some people said they saw the need for more, safer parking. Others, however, expressed concern that the area designated for angle parking is near several homes where it’s already a challenge to get in and out of driveways, and parked cars would decrease the visibility even further.
Several people asked whether a parking lot would address the parking congestion. Hardy said Columbia County does not want to get into the business of owning, operating and maintaining off-street parking lots.
When a participant suggested the restaurant owners should be required to provide enough off-street parking to accommodate their customers, Hardy said that is a matter for the county’s Planning and Zoning Department, not the Highway Department.
Some people spoke to the need for improved safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, many of whom now travel down the middle of the road when the shoulders are full of parked cars.
Sorensen said comments such as these should be written down and submitted, because they will influence what the project will ultimately look like.
“This is where we want your input,” he said, “so we can make some tweaks before moving ahead.”
The immediate next step is soil testing at the site of the long-vacant Okee General Store on the east end of the project area, to determine whether mitigation of hazardous materials (such as residue from underground fuel tanks) would need to be alleviated. The project will also require acquiring some property and getting easements at other parcels.
Construction is tentatively slated for sometime in 2019, with the work on the causeway (which will require a detour) to be done outside of the peak summer tourism season.
Anyone who has a comment on the project may call Schrum at 608-442-1277.