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Deadly crashes bump crossing to high priority

County and state transportation experts have been meeting and discussing what short-term improvements would make the Hwy. 35 crossing at Paulson Road/County Road U safer. Debbie Griffin

Two fatal accidents inside of two months at the Hwy. 35 Paulson Road/County Road U crossing drew sadness and other mixed reactions.

Some say lower the speed limit, others say close the crossing. Many say the intersection is fine but people need to be more patient and careful while crossing.

Most look to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to help find answers and prevent more deaths.

Chris Ouellette, a WisDOT communication manager in Eau Claire, said state transportation experts have been meeting with those from the county to discuss what can be done short term to make the highway crossing safer.

As the Journal has reported before and as Ouellette confirmed again last week, the WisDOT's long-term plan for the roadway leading into River Falls includes building an interchange at the Radio Road crossing, then closing the crossing there and at Paulson Road/County Road U.

Paulson will extend north to Radio Road. Motorists will access the highway via Radio Road or at the River Falls/Main Street exit.

Oulette said the WisDOT has begun official mapping for that project, but the improvements aren't slated for construction until 2013-2015.

"It is on the schedule to happen in that time frame," she said about the plan.

After the changes, Hwy. 35's classification would change from expressway to freeway.

The WisDOT's meetings with the St. Croix County Safety Commission focused on what can be done sooner than 2015. Oulette said the agency has asked the City Council to let it present some options, possibly at its next meeting Tuesday, Jan. 13.

She's not sure the item has been added to the council's agenda yet but anticipates making the proposal to council members soon.

Though not yet "set in stone," the proposed options are likely to include a combination of crossing- and turning-movement restrictions or closing the median all together.

With the first option, motorists would only be allowed to turn right, not left, which requires crossing Hwy. 35. This option would require new signage.

Closing the crossing would mean blocking off the middle part, making it impossible to cross there. This more expensive option would require light construction.

Oulette and her WisDOT colleagues know two fatal accidents at the highway crossing this year have stirred the community and spurred commentary. She says two fatalities so close together grabbed the WisDOT's attention.

She said historically, the crossing hasn't had a high-crash rate, especially deadly ones.

"We felt it was important that we needed to respond," she said.

Oulette admits that money influences both short- and long-term safety solutions for the crossing, especially considering the state's huge budget deficit.

She said to her knowledge, there are emergency funds that would cover most, if not all, of the short-term solutions. Making the major multi-million dollar interchange project happen any sooner would not be easy.

When compared to the rest of the state, the stretch of Hwy. 35 running into River Falls has had a lot of improvements in the relatively recent past, according to Oulette. She said the section of highway ranks near the top of the state's list in terms of money invested for improvements.

Major projects along the roadway in the last 10-12 years include building both the Hwy. 65 and Hanley Road overpasses, changing Hwy. 35 from a two-lane to a four-lane roadway, adding lanes at Cascade Avenue and doing several heavy-duty maintenance projects like resurfacing.

Pending the City Council's approval of a short-term safety improvement and depending on weather, Oulette said work on the selected option could begin early 2009.