Nicely managed

A recent drive through a pair of Badger State work zones left me surprisingly calm

Brian Budzynski / August 07, 2018
Brian Budzynski

I recently drove from my home in the western suburbs of Chicago up to northern Wisconsin on a family matter, and I pretty much had two options for getting there in a reasonable amount of time—both of them, if you took your information from Google maps alone, pretty bad.

One alternative had me going up in an almost perfect shot through the Milwaukee metro area and on into Wausau and Antigo, and then further north toward Eagle River; the other was a kind of “elbow” route, by which I would get away from Chicago via I-90 west toward the Rockford region and then continue north when 90 became I-39, even eventually 51, thence into a final hour’s worth of county and local roads. The reason I say both were pretty bad is that both are presently undergoing a significant amount of road work. I-294 and I-94 are both being reconstructed in the Chicago area and in the Kenosha, Wis., area. I-39/I-90 is being practically re-envisioned up in the Madison area—a 40+ mile work zone with tight lanes, closed shoulders, close barriers and a mountainous amount of reclaimed material along the corridor. Either way, I was in for it.

Until, that is, I wasn’t.

I do a fair amount of driving, and I mostly don’t like it much, although lately the chance to listen to music I actually enjoy (as opposed to my daughter’s insistence on the My Little Pony soundtrack for the umpteenth time, which isn’t terrible but still) or to have an extenuated period of simple quiet is rather welcome. I was doing this drive solo (my family having left the day before to assist with some necessary arrangements) and so was prepared to grind through whatever gridlock I might face. Except that I didn’t.

I had split the difference on my route choices—I-94/294 on the way up, I-39/90 back home, and both ways, to my pleasant surprise after the stop-and-go frustration I daily deal with on I-355 in order to get into my office, traffic was kept going smoothly, albeit at times at a modest rate, but there were no stock-stills, no inexplicable logjams, no symphony of raging car horns. Both routes featured what I found to be excellently managed construction zones. Signage was redundant and clear. Lanes were distinct, and shifts in the traffic pattern were easy to adapt to. Most exits were open and accessible, and those that were under temporary close were given clearly marked alternative routes. These respective work zones were so well managed in fact that I arrived at my destinations on both legs of my round-trip within 20 min of the GPS estimated time (on the way home it was 20 min early). For a six-hour drive, I’d say that’s all right.

During these drives, in pockets when traffic was slow and I felt comfortable taking my eyes off the road and peering around at my surroundings, I made a subliminal compare-and-contrast with other work zones I have muscled through in the recent past, and I came to the conclusion that the Wisconsin DOT has established a solid traffic management protocol for major projects. In fact, the only other work zone in my recent memory that was so well managed was the Zoo Interchange work zone up in Milwaukee, which I had visited two years ago when it was in full bridge-building swing. My home state of Illinois could learn something about it (ahem, I-355 resurfacing quagmire, ahem).

It’s nice to have something positive to report; I tend to see the shady side of the driving experience. Living in a dense metropolitan area festooned with the impatient and privileged will do that to you. And I suppose feeling boxed-in brings out the glass-half-empty aspect of my personality (you should see me on an airplane).

But if for any reason you find yourself heading through Wisconsin this summer, and you come across signs informing you: CONSTRUCTION ZONE NEXT 42 MILES, fear not. It’s not as bad it looks.

About the Author

Budzynski is managing editor of Traffic & Transit.

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