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Big changes coming to Exit 3 on La Crosse's North Side

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Exit 3

Workers remove barrels on Interstate 90 near Exit 3 in November. Work on the interchange will resume in the spring.

Tribune file photo

Spring will bring a new era for the area around Interstate 90’s intersection with Hwys. 53 and 35.

“We’re kind of changing the whole character of the road versus what it used to be when it was originally built,” Wisconsin Department of Transportation project development chief engineer Jim Rohe said. “It really was kind of a rural highway. Onalaska was not fully developed at that point. Really we’re kind of transitioning it to a true urban feel.”

After 15 public information meetings, five years of work and a presentation to the La Crosse Common Council, WisDOT has finalized design plans for the area where West George and Rose streets meet.

Gone will be the loop of the cloverleaf of interstate exit 3, its merging ramps onto Hwy. 53 designed to keep fast-moving traffic flowing. They will be replaced by diamond configurations and controlled intersections, the goal being to slow traffic and make it safer for large numbers of cars.

The stretch of road will include three new traffic signals: one at the corner of George and West George streets, which will provide access to Bridgeview Plaza to the south and several area businesses, including Walgreens, Americas Best Value Inn, Kwik Trip and SSE Music to the north, and one each at the two intersections of Exit 3 with Highway 53. There won’t be a ramp going up and around to feed interstate traffic onto West George Street, but that intersection will keep its stoplight.

That main change to the character of the area will come with raised medians on both Rose and West George streets that block left turns, requiring traffic to move along and enter businesses from the back through a pair of access roads the DOT will build.

The design will add greenery, additional access to the Black River and encourage pedestrian traffic to make it feel more like a city and less like a rural area.

“Now the road is reflecting what’s around it,” Rohe said.

The Exit 3 project began five years ago as part of a larger five-part Interstate 90 project that stretched from Dresbach, Minn., to Exit 5 in Onalaska. The total cost of the project is $75 million. The final leg, which project manager Anthony VanderWielen described as the toughest, has an estimated price tag of $16.5 million.

“This will tie it all together,” VanderWielen said.

Construction will begin in the early spring — the exact date will depend on the weather — and the new exit and roads are scheduled to be completed Nov. 17.

“Finally, people will get some rest from the constant road construction over there,” VanderWielen said.

There will be some finishing touches finished in 2018, primarily landscaping intended to beautify the area, such as the planting of different colors and textures of grasses and a variety of trees.

The main purpose of the design is to control access, slow down traffic and increase safety, both to people entering the interstate at Exit 3, which sees quite a few cars sliding on the loops, and those people looking to get to businesses.

“It’s not the safest situation right now,” civil engineer Joe Gregas said. “When we’re done with this, everyone is going to be coming up to a signalized intersection where they make turns under the guidance of traffic signals, which is much safer to do.”

The intersection of Rose and West George streets will have double-left and double-right turn lanes to increase the traffic capacity of the corridor.

“Right now, people are backing up all the way to (Palace Street). If you can get two cars turning at the same time, the amount of time that the light is red is shorter,” VanderWielen said.

That does require the installation of an additional lane; however, that won’t make the road much wider than it is now. With narrowed medians and the addition of curb and gutter, the total width of the road will go to 114 from 108 feet, with most of the additional space going toward a 10-foot-wide walking and bicycle path.

“One of the things we heard from our stakeholders was that we need to make this area more pedestrian-friendly,” Gregas said. “That was one of our big objectives in this project, not just in the city of La Crosse but also take it toward the city of Onalaska.”

For most of Rose Street, there will be a sidewalk on one side and a path on the other, but the plans divert pedestrian traffic to the west side of the road at the exit, asking people to cross at a signalled intersection.

“Right now, paths for pedestrians on (the east) side are leading them to nowhere and we don’t want them walking on the bridge. We’d rather have them cross over and get onto this path that takes them all the way to Onalaska,” VanderWielen said.

The path will connect to the sidewalk by Oak Forest Drive, which leads up to the entrance to Onalaska’s new Great River Landing.

The sidewalks were a popular addition, with La Crosse Common Council member Andrea Richmond describing the access as “awesome.”

“You’re going to have the controlled access so people can cross Rose Street. You’re going to have sidewalks where you’ve never had sidewalks before,” Richmond said. “It’s going to have a huge effect on what does happen to this exit on the north side.”

While La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat was pleased to see the pedestrian access, he was most eager to see the inclusion of an eagle-viewing area requested by the city.

“It’ll be exciting to have a safe pull-out area for people to view eagles and local wildlife,” Kabat said.

The city will cover the $475,000 cost and be in charge of maintain the facility. It’s also working on moving the “Welcome to La Crosse” sign featuring a replica of Elmer Petersen’s steel “The Lacrosse Players” sculpture located further down Rose Street to the area.

The city wasn’t originally enthusiastic about the design, with Kabat joining others in voicing concerns about whether a design with fewer driveways would encourage high speeds and discourage people from visiting businesses in the area after they have fewer access points, particularly with a median preventing left turns on West George Street.

For drivers going to the Rose Street Walgreens, there will no longer be an option to turn across traffic to enter on West George. Rather, drivers will need to go down to the intersection at George and West George and take a left and the light, then take another left down the new access road.

“They’ll have to come around to the back. To me, if you’re a local business you want to have traffic going through there that’s slower and you’ll want to have more opportunities for people to turn into there,” Kabat said.

However, the DOT believes the addition of three more lights along with lowering the speed limit to 40 miles per hour will solve both of those problems.

“What that does is make traffic more efficiently,” Gregas said. “It’s a safer situation when you don’t have to worry about people pulling out of driveways and it’s all signal-controlled access points.”

They pushed back against the idea that fewer driveways meant the stores would see less business.

“Businesses were originally concerned down here because they feel access is not as good,” said Rohe. “But it’s actually more reliable to get to their businesses and more predictable.”

He compared the design to similar designs near Highways 16 and 157, where businesses like Best Buy and Festival Foods don’t have direct access to the highway, but are still flourishing.

“If people feel safe and comfortable getting to your business, your business will be fine,” Rohe said.

The city hopes to see additional redevelopment in the area, and Kabat expects the better access to the river and connections to the neighborhood will help.

While Rohe stopped short of saying the new road design would foster economic development, he believes the potential of the area is preserved by the design.

That’s not to say some businesses won’t be immediately affected.

The George Street McDonalds owned by Courtesy Corporation will be effected by the redesign; however, details of how the Onalaska-based company will address the changes have yet to be finalized.

The business most affected will be a thrift store on the corner of Rose Street.

The elimination of a driveway of West George Street forced the relocation of Good Steward Resale Shop after it removed the only public access to its property. Because the committee that owns the shop also owns the property, rather than leasing it from Bridgeview Plaza, its single driveway was the only legal access to its lot, according to Pastor Roger Sachs of First Evangelical Lutheran Church, who serves on the nonprofit corporation which manages the business.

While initially reluctant to move, the availability of the former Edwardo’s Restaurant property just down the road gave them an opportunity to change locations without sacrificing the benefits of their current lot.

“We didn’t think we could ever find a place as good as that, but after we studied the issue further it just wasn’t feasible to stay there, and part of it is because we’d lose a huge amount of parking,” Sachs said.

Ultimately, they agreed to sell their property to the DOT for $650,000 and move.

“We have a very positive, hopeful outlook with the new property and new place,” he said.

The new building, which will be quite a bit larger, will be finished in May. After the shop moves, the DOT will tear down its current building. Exactly what will happen to the property after that is not yet settled.

No other businesses will need to move based on the redesign.

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Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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