Construction began last week on the next and final phase of a multi-year, $9.3 million reconstruction project on U.S. Highway 51 near Arbor Vitae, a project which will add lanes and install storms sewers, curbs and sidewalks. 

But as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation moves toward completing the project, at least some area residents say their concerns about the stretch of highway have gone unaddressed. 

Mike and Mary Deutscher, who’ve lived at their house along the highway since 1989, say they just want to be able to get in and out of their driveway safely. But the property sits on a curve, making it hard to see vehicles coming from the north. The problem is exacerbated, they say, by the 45 mph speed limit on that stretch of road.  

Even WisDOT, which purchased a slice of the Deutschers’ property for the reconstruction project, appears to acknowledge a concern. 

Referring to the property’s two driveways, one of which belongs to a neighbor, WisDOT wrote in a modification to the deed: “These access points do not meet WisDOT standards for intersection sight distance, however they do meet DOT standards for stopping sight distance. The lack of intersection sight distance at the access points could result in safety or operational issues related to driveway maneuvers.”

If the driveway posed safety concerns, the document continued, WisDOT could modify the driveway or restrict its use. 

The same year, a WisDOT staffer sent the Deutschers an email recommending they keep the property alongside the highway clear of anything which could further impede vision when leaving the driveway. 

“WisDOT strongly encourages you to not place anything whatsoever within the clear zone area (currently staked) as required for safety reasons for your primary access location,” the email reads. 

The Deutschers bristle at being told what to do with their property.

“I guess the thing that irks me the most is how the government can come and tell you what to do with your property with no judicial process,” Mike Deutscher said. (A WisDOT spokesperson said there are no restrictions on the deed indicating it’s the owners’ responsibility to keep the sightline clear — it was only recommended they do so).

But the Deutschers’ say there’s a simple solution to the problem: Lower the speed limit to 30 mph, which would provide for more time to see cars approaching from the north. 

They are not alone in calling for a speed limit reduction. Larry Coles, owner of Bear Hugs wood carving and Deutschers’ neighbor to the south, said he and others have been asking for a speed limit reduction for years, to no avail. 

“We’ve tried to change the speed limit, but it’s just a big runaround,” Coles said. “It’s clear they’re going to do what they want anyway. What can you do?”

In 2015, a group of concerned citizens pressed the Arbor Vitae Town Board to ask WisDOT for a speed limit reduction.

“The Town of Arbor Vitae would like to see the 30 mph speed limit extended to Arrowhead Dr.,” town chairman Frank Bauers wrote in a letter to WisDOT. “We feel 45 mph is too fast for this section of road and your speed survey agrees with this. We request the speed limit be changed as soon as possible.”

But a WisDOT project manager disagreed. Most cars traveled along that stretch of road at 43 mph, according to a traffic study, something that must be conducted before speed limits can change. And a study of crashes didn’t indicate speed as a contributing factor in collisions, he wrote. 

In 2016, Minocqua residents successfully pushed for a speed limit change south of town on Highway 51. But WisDOT said that was a different situation: a traffic study found most drivers traveled at 20 mph over the speed limit, according to a study at the time. 

For now, WisDOT has determined the speed limit near Arbor Vitae is just fine. The department will do another study once the project is complete and see if a speed limit change is warranted, a spokesperson said.  

As for the Deutschers, WisDOT will cut down trees and shave down a hill on the property which the department said should aid visibility. 

Mario Koran may be reached via email at mario@rivernewsonline.com.