Summer construction sees crash increase
From a four-car accident at the Highway 35 exit to a semi-truck fire on the Interstate 94 bridge, drivers facing construction on I-94 from Minnesota to Hudson may have felt like there were more backups than normal this season. They were right.
The stretch of I-94 from the St. Croix River to Exit 4 at Highway 12 saw a 98 percent increase in traffic crashes from the previous year.
Between April and October 2018, authorities responded to 162 crashes, according to preliminary Wisconsin Department of Transportation data. In 2017, that number was 82.
"We're definitely seeing a much more drastic impact than we have in the past," Hudson Police Chief Geoff Willems said.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation project started in April and is continuing into November. Construction crews are replacing bridge decks at Exit 1 and adding lanes on the interstate as well as on the ramps onto Highway 35 toward River Falls.
June saw the most crashes in 2018 — 33 — followed by May (28) and September (26).
No month during that stretch in 2017 saw more than 18 crashes.
The heaviest concentrations of crashes in 2018 occurred on or just east of the St. Croix River bridge, where traffic began, and near the eastbound freeway entrance coming from Carmichael Road.
There is a certain expectation for increased issues during construction, though Willems said he'd like to think drivers would slow down and pay more attention to the road conditions. Still Willems said he has seen more crashes with this project than previous ones.
"I don't know if that's because it's confusing or if it's because there's more traffic obviously or if it's because people just aren't paying attention, or if it's because of all three combined," Willems said.
Areas surrounding I-94 have not seen an increased impact, Willems said.
The WisDOT project did not coordinate with local police ahead of the project, but Willems said the department did petition to lower the speed limit down to 50 mph in the lane change area of construction. That request was denied, and the construction speed was set at 60 mph.
"From what I understand, they don't like to drop that any lower than 10 mph under the speed limit for a construction area," Willems said.
People still travel through the area above that 60 mph limit, Willems said. Enforcement in the area during the construction is difficult, with no safe place for officers to sit and clock speeds.
Speed is one of the biggest concerns for Willems in the project. Large lane shifts and uneven lanes is another one.
"Drivers have to be alert for the changing conditions, they have to slow down through the construction zones and drive with caution," he said.
As of October, it is now against the law for drivers to be even talking on cell phones, unless they have a handless device, in construction zones.
"It can wait. Literally the construction area is four miles long, four minutes of time that if it takes you five minutes it's going to be okay," Willems said.
With the project scheduled to wrap up this month, Willems said he is also concerned about the changing weather conditions.
"We're not looking forward to this, we're not looking forward to this at all," he said.
Though the construction has caused issues, Willems said it has been handled as well as possible with the nature of the project, as well as the amount of traffic seen on I-94 in the area. The project has been able to keep three lanes open, and though the lane shifts can be big, they're not unreasonable.
"I don't know what else they could have done with the project they were doing," he said.
Wisconsin State Patrol is the primary responder on accidents on I-94, as its a federal highway, but Hudson Police will respond to assist.
Any incident in the construction area, whether it's an accident or a disabled vehicle, is interpreted as an emergency event, Willems said, due to the possible safety impact it can have on officers responding.
"We are getting a tow truck en route immediately so that we can get those things cleared out," Willems said.
Officers secure the scene, often times setting up a car a few hundred yards back to start getting people to slow down and provide the necessary room for responders.
"Our goal is to get out there and get lights out there to get people to slow down and start moving over," Willems said.
Typically at least one lane will be shut down to address the incident. Depending on the scope of the crash or the extent of injury, two of the three lanes may be closed down.
According to the 2018 state data, which compiles reports from various agencies, 21 of the crashes were flagged for criteria ranging from possible injuries to serious injuries.
There were nine such injury-related crashes reported there in 2017.
No fatal crashes were reported from that period in either year along that stretch.
Responders can spend between 20 minutes to an hour on scene, Willems said. Even after a scene is cleared, Willems said it can take time for all the traffic caused by it to clear as well.
"You can still be experiencing back ups a few miles down the road an hour after," he said.
The police department has been working with WisDOT as well as the Minnesota DOT to use message boards to alert drivers of crashes, giving them warning and possibly time to find an alternate route.
"There's only so many ways across the river," Willems said.
Other resources for drivers are Wisconsin's 511 as well as the Waze GPS app, which is gaining in popularity.
"My advice would be when entering a construction zone, slow down, pay attention, put the phone down, be aware of changing lanes and weather road conditions," Willems said.
WisDOT representatives did not return requests for comment.