Communities tie economic hopes to four-lane highways

David Fettig | Managing Editor

Published March 1, 1990  | March 1990 issue

The nation's largest truckload carrier—Schneider National Inc.—is headquartered in Green Bay, Wis. Nationally, Schneider's 6,000-plus drivers travel over a million miles a day.

Every time one of those drivers encounters a two-lane highway, the trip naturally takes longer—and a slower trip means higher transportation costs.

Every time one of those trucks travels a bumpy road, the truck suffers increased wear-and-tear—as does the company's bottom line.

And every time a truck leaves Green Bay for the 200-mile trip to Eau Claire, Wis., it must travel on Highway 29—a mostly two-lane road crossing Wisconsin's northern tier.

"Whenever the road system is in bad shape it leads to wear-and-tear on the trucks, driver fatigue and driver annoyance," said Tom Bartel, assistant general counsel for Schneider.

The Schneider trucking company's annoyance with Highway 29 may be abated within the next 10 years—that's the proposed completion schedule for a new four-lane highway connecting Green Bay with Eau Claire. That will also mean that Green Bay will be connected, via four-lanes, with the Twin Cities and all points westward.

Such a connection is vital for northern Wisconsin, Bartel said, and not just for trucking companies. More businesses, in an effort to control their inventories, are practicing just-in-time delivery of needed shipments. That requires efficient transportation, Bartel said.

Also, the state's tourism industry would likely benefit from easier access between the northern tier and the Twin Cities, he said.

"This will have a tremendous impact all the way to the Twin Cities," Bartel said.

Interstate Gets the Credit

Words like "tremendous impact" come up often when state and local officials talk about the need for four-lane access to and from various communities.

Brenda Blanchard, executive vice president of the Greater Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, said that the Interstate 94 corridor between Eau Claire and the Twin Cities is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. And Eau Claire itself has been one of the top three growth areas in Wisconsin for the past 10 years. She credits the Interstate.

In the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan, efforts are under way to determine the best use of new four-lane highways, if and when they would be built. Currently, the U.P. is served by one strip of four-lane highway, Interstate 75, running north and south on the east end to Sault Ste. Marie.

Richard Dunnebacke, executive director of Operation Action U.P., an industrial organization serving the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, said the U.P. needs a four-lane highway to help spur industrial growth.

While at first glance it may appear that the U.P. could probably use a four-lane highway running east and west, Dunnebacke said a north-south highway on the west end of the U.P. would be even more beneficial. The U.P.'s economy is not driven primarily by tourism industries, which would benefit most from an east-west route, Dunnebacke said. Rather, the U.P. depends most on the timber and paper industries, which need better links to their southern markets in Wisconsin, he said.

In Montana, a group plans to encourage development along the Interstate 90 corridor from Billings to Bozeman, Butte and Missoula. The group's efforts may include venture capital creation and an area business inventory to encourage site selection of future developments.

And in South Dakota, two four-lane projects, one in the east and one in the west, have been proposed in an effort to stimulate economic development and tourism.

In the east, a 630-mile, four-lane loop—known as the Dakota Expressway—including Yankton, Mitchell, Huron, Aberdeen, Watertown, Sioux Falls and Vermillion, is under consideration. Of the 630 miles, 303 miles already exists as a four-lane highway.

John Silvernail, executive vice president of Yankton's Office of Economic Development, said the eastern communities deserve a four-lane highway because 62 percent of the state's population lives within that loop, and 69 percent of the sales tax is generated in the same area. Also, he believes construction of a four-lane highway around eastern South Dakota is crucial for more economic development in the area.

However, the likelihood of near-term construction of the Dakota Expressway isn't that great, according to the state's Secretary of Transportation, Richard Howard. The project would cost about $200 million, and, while Howard concedes there is hope for the plan, such hope is probably contingent on financial commitments from the federal government.

Paving the Way to Paradise

Every state has some sort of wish list for the development of four-lane highways—and for obvious reasons. When companies choose a new site for their operations, they often require close proximity to good highways.

To be sure, there are many other factors that come to bear on a company's site selection: available labor supply and natural resources, proximity to a central business district and an airport; but convenient highway access is often crucial.

A map of the Ninth District and accompanying tables on this page show the Interstate highway system and city population growth. In general, while acknowledging the presence of other factors, the map shows that—for the most part—communities located within 20 miles of an Interstate highway have grown more over the past 20 years than communities unattached to the Interstate.

And, it is the belief that a better highway system will lead to more growth in the future that is fueling many local regions' bids for four-lane roads. As Richard Dunnebacke of Michigan's U.P. said:

"We are really handicapped. We definitely need a four-lane, limited-access highway. We are constantly behind the eight-ball when it comes to industrial development."