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Teaming up on 29, governments coming together for grant

Traffic here at the intersection of Wisconsin Highway 29 and County Trunk U could dissipate in six years if the federal BUILD Grant is awarded to Hobart, Howard and Brown County. Ben Rodgers Photo

By Ben Rodgers

HOBART – Three government entities are hoping to partner in an effort to remove a thorn in the side of development – a long-proposed Wisconsin Highway 29 interchange at County Trunk VV.

The villages of Hobart and Howard, along with Brown County, will collectively apply for a federal grant to acquire funds to construct a diamond interchange.

The Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant could award up to $25 million for the construction of an interchange.

The deadline to apply is July 19. If awarded, the entities would be notified in December and have roughly six years to complete the project.

Hobart, Howard, Brown County and the state would have to contribute to some of the cost, but 80 percent, up to $25 million, could come from the grant.

The BUILD grant has a total of $1.5 billion to be awarded based on merit criteria that include safety, economic competitiveness, quality of life, environmental protection, state of good repair, innovation, partnership and additional non-federal revenue for future transportation infrastructure investments.

Located on Highway 29 at Country VV, the interchange would in part serve Hobart’s Centennial Centre, one of the strongest tax incremental financing districts in Wisconsin, according to people interviewed for this article.

“We have heard more and more from developers and perspective businesses, especially retail, that but for the interchange not being there they would be happy to locate in northern Hobart,” said Aaron Kramer, Hobart village administrator. “The population is there, the tax rate is competitive, the willingness of the village to facilitate development is there, the interchange is not, and that seems to be the biggest impediment that we face.”

A decade ago, Centennial Centre was nothing but empty fields.

Since then, close to $130 million in taxable value has been constructed, with a majority being residential, and 200 jobs have been added because of industry.

“It’s all been done without any federal or state assistance,” said Rich Heidel, Hobart village president for the past 15 years. “So it would seem to me that if you had 100 other similar economic development projects throughout the state, Wisconsin, as good as it is doing, would be doing even better. We’re a poster child; we’re a poster child for Governor (Scott) Walker’s agenda.”

When the village started the development in 2008, it knew an interchange would be needed.

Around 2010, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, along with Brown County, identified the need formally when the two implemented planned road projects from 2002 along the Highway 29 corridor from Green Bay to the county line.

“That all played out basically as planned, with the sole exception of this diamond interchange at (Highway) 29 and (County) VV,” Heidel said.

Howard also stands to gain from an interchange as the village has 50 acres of certified development off Highway 29 that could be used for industrial or commercial development.

“It’s such a nonstarter for most people,” said Paul Evert, Howard village administrator. “They want safe, efficient access on and off the highway system. It’s been a real detriment for our site.”

Steve Atkins, a developer with Centennial Centre Development Partners, along with local officials, have been lobbying anyone and everyone with the power to make this project happen.

“The infrastructure is not nearly adequate for the growth that’s already happened, not to mention future growth,” Atkins said. “It’s something that has to happen much sooner than later. It’s definitely a safety issue, and safety is typically the state transportation department’s No. 1 priority.”

When headed west on Highway 29 leaving Green Bay, the current interchange at County Trunk U to turn onto Triangle Drive by Centennial Centre uses J-turns where traffic that exits must cross a lane of oncoming traffic at full highway speed.

Since 2015, law enforcement in Hobart and Howard reported 141 crashes between County trunks U and VV on Highway 29. Those numbers do not include any crashes that would have been handled by the Brown County Sheriff’s Office.

The Pulaski Community School District serves students in that area, and due to safety concerns, will not make any left turns off of Highway 29.

“We have to get to the kids somehow,” said Tracey Szymanski, PCSD transportation coordinator. “We just need to make sure we’re doing it safely.”

As one of the 10 largest geographical school districts in Wisconsin, PCSD has to tack additional miles on bus routes to accomplish this.

Szymanski puts the estimate at close to 2,500 extra miles a year drivers need to put on to avoid safety issues on Highway 29.

“It’s hard to put the price on that, obviously, for safety reasons that’s invaluable,” she said.

However, the extra mileage affects what the district has to spend on gas, driver time, and fleet maintenance.

Local lawmakers in Madison are behind the project, but at this stage it’s too early to tell if money from the state would become available for this project if awarded the grant.

“I’m a supporter of getting something done there on that interchange, because I think it’s important,” said Rep. Jim Steineke, house majority leader from the 5th Assembly District. “The case I make to the governor and anyone else that will listen is that this will serve one of the fastest growing mixed-use developments in the state. Speaking to the village leaders, over the course of time they’re really concerned the delays on this interchange would lead to that particular development stalling in the course of its growth.”

Steineke said transportation funding is one of the biggest political issues in Madison right now because the DOT has to keep up current roads, so new projects tend to get pushed to the backburner, like this interchange has for the past decade.

“There’s no secret that the transportation fund has been struggling with a lack of resources to meet all the ends we have in the state,” he said. “That’s why over the last several years the Assembly has been pushing for a long-term fix for the transportation fund.”

Another elected official from the area, Sen. Robert Cowles of the 2nd Senate District, member of the Committee on Transportation and Veterans Affairs, said he will do what he can to get the grant approved.

“I support the interchange at Highway 29 and County VV and hope the federal government approves the applications, and I look forward to doing a letter in support of the application,” Cowles said.

Brown County, at the behest of County Executive Troy Streckenbach, is currently in the middle of the application process and funding sources will be dealt with at the end, said Cole Runge, principal planner with Brown County Planning Commission.

“At this point we’re not sure what the founding structure will be; we just started to fill out the applications a couple of days ago,…” Runge said. “Once we do that, we’ll be able to start discussing whose going to pay for what outside of that BUILD grant. We’re confident we can do it, but we’re not sure whose going to pay for what portion of it.”

On Monday, June 25, the Howard village board formally approved two resolutions to move ahead with the grant process.

Hobart will have a similar resolution to approve at its July 3 board meeting.

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