By Ben Rodgers and Kevin Boneske
Editor and Staff Writer
BROWN COUNTY – The vision of Centennial Centre gaining a bustling commercial hub, to go along with its growing residential population became more of a reality on Friday, Dec. 7.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin announced on Friday that nearly $20 million in U.S. Department of Transportation grant funding was secured for a highway project that will improve a troublesome intersection in Brown County.
The State Highway 29-County Trunk VV interchange project will replace the current intersection with a new interchange that will include sidewalks, bicycle lanes and roundabouts near its ramp terminals and nearby intersections.
The villages of Hobart and Howard, along with Brown County, collectively applied for a federal grant to acquire funds to construct a diamond interchange.
“Obviously the development, there’s a lot up there now, there’s a lot more on the horizon, but I also want people to understand one of the main reasons we pushed so hard on this grant application was safety,” said Hobart Village Administrator Aaron Kramer. “Even if nothing else was built up there, we would still have major concerns about vehicular safety.”
Earlier this year there was a fatality and the intersection and crash numbers show more than 140 accidents there since 2015.
The federal grant is being provided through the DOT’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Grant Program that will fund improvements and upgrades on Highway 29.
Rich Heidel has been village president in Hobart for nearly 15 years, and he has spent 10 of those asking the state for funds for this project.
“Only in the last 10 years with the development that has gone on there, that it has catapulted need for an interchange,” Heidel said.
He said the project was originally delayed multiple times due to state budget constraints.
Now with Hobart, Howard and Brown County committed to the project, along with a federal grant, the state will also contribute to make it a reality.
“My reaction for the first 10 minutes, I was just thrilled to death, but being the kind of individual I am, my exhilaration lasted for 10 minutes,” Heidel said. “The way I work, I immediately am now going down the road, I’m immediately trying to figure out what does the project timeline look like? How much revenue is going to have to be identified from project participants that we still need to secure? So I’m just a problem solver, that’s the way I think.”
Area officials have previously said that this intersection is the one thing keeping businesses from coming to one of the fastest growing Tax Incremental Financing Districts in the state.
“It won’t happen overnight but obviously this is a huge leap forward for anybody who has thought about investing their money in that part of Hobart and that part of Howard,” Kramer said.
Paul Belschner, president of Base Companies LLC, and owner of Hobart Centennial Centre Marketplace, which has launched the first phase of commercial development in the area, said the project will help bring opportunities to the people who live there.
“The more inviting access off and on the highway will change traffic patterns and demographics,” Belschner said. “Those enhancements will appeal to certain types of retail users that have demographic requirements that hadn’t been previously met within the Centennial Centre Marketplace.”
He said the traffic pattern when the interchange is complete will open the door for more commercial retailers.
“Now there will be a different analysis by retailers that demand higher traffic counts in access,” he said. “That should allow for the next phases of retail to become more realistic. That could include restaurants, coffee shops, convenience stores (and) grocery stores that require that access.”
Across Highway 29 to the north and west, Howard is excited as the project will help pave the way for development in its village boundaries.
“It really opens it up,” said Paul Evert, Howard village administrator. “It really improves our chances of getting some business on our certified industrial site off of Marley Street. Everybody who has looked at it said ‘We can’t get our business there because of access.’”
Evert said the region in general is running short of room for light industry. The interchange will make more land available for more development.
Kramer said construction on the interchange could start in 2021 or 2022.
He estimated the total project cost at between $35 and $40 million. The state, along with Brown County, Hobart and Howard, would contribute to the overall cost as well.
Kramer said the grant was a success because of the efforts of multiple people.
“Personally, and on behalf of the village, I want to thank our county executive and director of administration,” Kramer said. “They really pushed this hard via Brown County, our state and local legislators supported it, wrote letters in support, and I have to tip my hat to Gov. (Scott) Walker. He submitted a letter last week personally to give this one big last-minute push, that may have helped considerably. We appreciate the governor’s help on this. It was truly a bipartisan effort and collaboration, which we hope to see continue in the state of Wisconsin.”
Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach, who appeared Tuesday, Dec. 11, at a news conference with local and state officials at Reading Connections in Hobart to announce the federal grant for the project, said it took a “full-court press” of people working together to obtain funding for the interchange.
“You can see that a project of this magnitude and this size, and how you get funding for a project like this, takes a lot of effort,” he said. “What you see behind us is truly that effort in terms of moving a needle forward on a project when as a nation we’re struggling to figure out how to fix an infrastructure that has built this country to what it is today. And now, fast forward to where we are today, we’re trying to figure out how we deal with (infrastructure) in a manner that allows for economic development and a safe commute to and from work or to school.”
Streckenbach said county staff decided in June to seek federal grant money for the project “not only because of the safety issues, but also of the economic opportunities that are being missed.”
“Once we applied for the BUILD grant, we brought together all the different individuals who would be critical for us to make the case to both our state and our federal delegations,” he said. “And ultimately, we made a call out to D.C. and talked to the intergovernmental affairs department about how important this project is and reminded them about the safety and economic development opportunities.”
Streckenback said the project was “shovel ready” when the federal grant was applied for because a lot of the engineering and design work had already been completed by the state DOT.
“What we didn’t have was the funding, and so this helped us bridge that gap from a federal standpoint to bring in that $20 million,” he said.
Streckenback said an initial meeting on the project with state DOT officials is planned in January to discuss issues related to the interchange.
“Right out, we’re thinking this is around a $30 million project,” he said. “Essentially, we’re hoping to start it somewhere around 2022, give or take a year… We’ll know a lot more after the first of the year when we have that first kickoff meeting.”
Cole Runge, the county’s principal planner, said the current County VV and U at-grade intersections with Wisconsin State Highway 29 would be removed and replaced by a grade-separated interchange about 1,600 feet west of the current County VV intersection.
“The first step will be having a kickoff meeting in January,” he said. “At that point we’ll discuss the remaining design and environmental studies that have to be done, and there aren’t too many left, but there are a couple details to take care of, at which point we’ll start looking at the construction of the facility and the addition of broadband in this area.”
Runge said routing traffic will be up to the state DOT in the area where construction on the interchange takes place.
“The intention, long term, is to leave (County) U open at least as VV is being reconstructed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if VV remains open as well during the construction, or at least most of the construction,” he said. “Once the interchange is finished, both of those intersections will be closed.”
Runge said the interchange will feature ramps accessing and exiting the highway, both eastbound and westbound, along with an overpass connecting the villages of Howard and Hobart, and resemble the interchange build just to the east at Highway 29 and County FF.
“One of the benefits of having this grade separation is you won’t have those high-speed, right-angle and rear-end crashes that you’re seeing now and you certainly saw in the past, because people will be able to transition to and from the freeway safely and easily on those interchange ramps,” he said.
In addition to the safety benefits by constructing the interchange, Runge said “we’re also very excited about the development impact this will have as well.”
“We believe, based on conversations with Hobart and Howard and others, that this will spur additional development in this area,” he said.