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Steps taken to make I-94 construction safer; driver attentiveness key

Eastbound traffic was being routed onto a westbound lane of Interstate 94 for the trip through the construction zone at Roberts on Monday. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation hoped to have two temporary lanes in each direction completed by the end of the week. <i>Randy Hanson photos</i>1 / 2
Work is underway to rebuild Interstate 94 Exit 10 at Roberts. The Hwy. 65 bridge is being replaced and the exit ramps will have roundabouts.2 / 2

Officials say the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has taken steps to improve traffic safety in the construction zone on Interstate 94 in St. Croix County, but ultimately, only motorists can reduce the number of crashes.

The No. 1 reason for the rash of accidents involving serious injuries or fatalities has been driver inattentiveness, said Chris Ouellette, the regional communications manager for WisDOT.

Ouellette reported that there were 13 crashes on the freeway between mileposts 4 and 16 from April 1 to Aug. 1 of this year. Of those, 11 involved serious injuries or fatalities, she said.

Three New Richmond teens have now died from injuries they suffered in a July 30 crash. Zachary D. Zajec, 17, the driver of an SUV that hit the rear of a flatbed semi-trailer died Monday at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

Two passengers in the vehicle, Joshua J. Goodrich, 17, and Jordan M. Johnson, 16, died soon after the accident. A fourth occupant of the vehicle, Thomas J. Wanless, 17, received nonfatal injuries.

Also last week, a 22-year-old Green Bay woman was killed when her car crossed the I-94 median at milepost 13 and hit an oncoming semi-truck.

Many of the accidents have occurred in or near the construction zone at Roberts, where work is under way to replace the Hwy. 35 bridge over the freeway, build roundabouts and reconstruct traffic lanes.

"We have construction. We have slowdowns and backups. So as a result of the slowdowns and backups, people need to be attentive to what they are doing. They need to be following at a safe distance," said Sgt. Brian Erickson of the Wisconsin State Patrol, who routinely patrols the stretch of I-94.

Erickson said traffic backups have been the catalyst for a number of accidents near the construction zone, but not all of them. The crash that killed the Green Bay woman was unrelated to the construction, he said.

The state trooper likened the accidents around the construction zone to what happens during a snow or ice storm. A percentage of drivers don't slow down, and end up in crashes.

"The onus is on the driver to pay attention," Erickson said.

Ouellette said the backups result when traffic is reduced to a single lane through the construction zone.

WisDOT has tried to keep two traffic lanes open during the morning and afternoon drive times for commuters to the Twin Cities, she said. But accidents have occurred even when lanes are closed in the middle of the day.

In early or mid-June, WisDOT put up more signs, farther out, warning of the construction zone. The department also started using electronic speed signs to show drivers how fast they are traveling.

"You can have all the signs in the world out there to prepare you that a construction zone is ahead, but if people aren't focused behind the wheel of their car all the signage in the world won't do anything," Ouellette lamented.

Nevertheless, after last week's fatalities, additional signs and electronic message boards were placed farther still from the construction zone around Roberts.

More control measures

This week, crews have been working to build temporary lanes through the construction zone that will make it possible to keep two lanes open in each direction for the duration the project, scheduled to be completed in August 2013.

Also, the Wisconsin State Patrol has dedicated additional troopers to work the area. Their goal is to slow down traffic and ticket any speeders or distracted drivers, Ouelette said.

When the project is completed next year, there will be a new Hwy. 65 bridge over the I-94, reconstructed east- and westbound traffic lanes through the area, extended freeway turn lanes and roundabouts at the exit ramps.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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