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Wisconsin Highway Planners Consider COVID-19 Impacts, Autonomous Vehicles

Chuck Quirmbach
Traffic moves along I-94, near Miller Park in July 2020.

The list of possible future state highway projects continues to change, as transportation officials discuss shifting costs and needs. Things to consider down the road may be less commuting due to COVID-19, and what might happen with driverless and internet-connected vehicles. 

Tuesday, the Transportation Projects Commission voted unanimously to advance the idea of replacing the Interstate 39/90/94 bridges over the Wisconsin River north of Madison. The panel of state and local officials also OK'd the concept of major safety improvements on U.S. Highway 51 south of Madison. The commission approved Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) recommendations to pull back on Interstate 94 expansion east of Hudson, and delay major changes to U.S. Highway 12 between Elkhorn and Whitewater. 

But WisDOT also got the OK to study potential major work over the next 15 years on I-39/90/94 from Madison to Wisconsin Dells. That's a stretch many people in southeastern Wisconsin take to get to the Dells, Twin Cities or to go up north.

WisDOT official Jeff Gust said due to COVID-19’s effect on commuting, total traffic on that section in September was down 8% from a year ago. But he said peak recreational traffic has recovered and so has truck traffic.

"The truck traffic is up 4% from September 2019 to September 2020. So, what we can say is the long-term work from home trends are not likely to affect the recreational and freight traffic travel,” Gust told the commission meeting.

A commission member asked if state projections of traffic increases on I-90/94 and other highways take into account the potential for connected and autonomous vehicles, ones that may be driverless and use the internet to connect with other cars, traffic lights and other smart technology to improve safety and traffic flow.

WisDOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson replied: "When we come out of the pandemic, obviously, traffic's going to come up some. But teleworking, moving forward, is certainly going to have an impact. To what extent we don't know, but we want to look at that. Then, what are connected and autonomous vehicles going to do? We want to provide more options to do things to add more alternatives for people without adding more lanes, more capacity — when it works."

WisDOT's Joe Nestler acknowledged things may be different in urban areas where there may be more technology and alternatives. He said as the state continues to study possible congestion relief for I-94 near Miller Park and that WisDOT is committed to considering options.

"We're looking at mitigation opportunities. Opportunities for transit. The public involvement,” Nestler said.

And, WisDOT is again promising not to double deck I-94, an option that raised public concern during an earlier round of debate over the east-west freeway, between roughly the Marquette Interchange and 70th Street.

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