Safety improvements to a Town of Sevastopol intersection that were originally planned for this year now won’t happen until the spring, county officials said Tuesday, after what they described as delays in getting state approval for their plans.

Separately, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) is applying for a grant to improve the intersection long-term, possibly by installing a roundabout, county and state officials said. But the county won’t know until the spring whether the state receives the grant, and the roundabout wouldn’t be installed for at least a few years.

The changes would be implemented at the intersection of Wisconsin Highways 42 and 57 and County Highway BB (Gordon Road), which has seen six accidents resulting in eight injuries this year. The intersection is home to a Culver’s restaurant and is near the planned future site of the Door Community Child Development Center.

The county wants to change the intersection to prevent drivers from turning left off of Gordon Road to go north on the state highway. About half of the 25 accidents at the intersection since 2014 have involved drivers attempting to make such a turn, accident reports show.

At a Door County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, county supervisors and staff leaders expressed frustration and disappointment about what they described as hurdles placed by the state DOT in the process of making those changes.

The intersection of Wisconsin Highways 42 and 57 and County Highway BB (Gordon Road) is seen in an accident report diagram from an accident at the intersection on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. About half of accidents at the intersection from 2014 through early November 2022 involved cars attempting to turn left from Gordon Road, as this accident did.

Asking state to make changes on 42/57

The county this year has been asking the state to improve the intersection, including in a resolution approved unanimously by the County Board in August. In addition to preventing left turns off of Gordon Road, the county has hoped the state would create clear, separate lanes in the northbound side of the state highway for drivers who are turning left and continuing straight.

The state DOT responded to the resolution in a Sept. 6 letter, saying its 2020-29 plan for state highways does not include improvements to the intersection beyond a 2023 resurfacing project, and that a DOT safety analysis did not recommend improvements there.

The DOT cannot create a left-turn lane on the state highway as part of the resurfacing work in 2023 because that was not included in an environmental planning process when the project was planned, said Mason Simmons, the DOT’s traffic safety engineer for northeast Wisconsin, in an interview Wednesday.

The county could do that work itself, Simmons said, but it would have to go through a permitting process, meet all state standards and cover the entire cost of the project.

County aims to prevent left turns from Gordon Road

At that same August meeting, the County Board approved spending $100,000 to improve the part of the intersection that the county has more control over – the county road. County highway commissioner Thad Ash said at the time that he expected the changes to be complete by Nov. 1.

But those changes also require DOT approval, because they fall within the state’s right-of-way related to the state highway at the intersection, county officials said Tuesday.

“Long story short, without pointing any fingers, we could not get DOT to agree to the design,” county administrator Ken Pabich told supervisors. The DOT is asking the county to widen Gordon Road as it approaches the state highway in order to add an “acceleration lane” for drivers turning south, he said.

“We can’t do the project now because it’s too late in construction season, and we won’t know if a roundabout’s going to occur until April at the earliest,” Pabich said. “We’re kind of in a holding pattern.”

Ash said he was disappointed with the state’s response to the county’s proposals.

“The timelines we had were more than enough,” he said. “Any time we brought them a plan they came back (asking for changes).”

Simmons said the DOT was concerned that the county’s design still would invite drivers to turn left off of Gordon Road by going around the enlarged “island” at the intersection, making a sharper turn that could increase the risk of crashes. The DOT also wanted to make sure the county’s design for the right-turn lane would work with all types of vehicles that use the road, Simmons said, and that there was adequate drainage.

The Door County Board of Supervisors meets in Sturgeon Bay on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. Photo by Andrew Phillips.

What comes next

There’s not much the county can do now at the intersection before spring, officials said.

Supervisor Bob Bultman, who represents parts of the Towns of Baileys Harbor and Jacksonport, called for placing concrete barriers to block the left-turn lane on Gordon Road until permanent improvements could be made. The state rejected that idea also, Pabich said, because it could pose a liability issue if drivers crashed into the barriers.

The county also cannot make any improvements to the intersection while the state’s grant application is pending, Ash said, because a condition of the grant is that no improvements have been made at the intersection during the previous five years.

The DOT has not yet decided on a roundabout as the long-term plan for the intersection, Simmons said.

“Given the crash pattern at this location and what we’re seeing as some of the trends, we’re thinking that the roundabout might be one of the better options,” he said, noting that the DOT would need to get the public’s buy-in before deciding on an option.

“A conservative estimate would be assuming (the grant) does get approved, it would be six years out. That would be 2028 construction.”

Mason Simmons, Wisconsin Department of Transportation traffic safety engineer for northeast wisconsin

While county officials said a roundabout could be built as early as 2026, Simmons said he has never committed to that timeline.

“A conservative estimate would be assuming (the grant) does get approved, it would be six years out,” Simmons said. “That would be 2028 construction.”

That’s because the DOT would need to acquire property from the surrounding property owners in order to build a roundabout or otherwise improve the intersection, Simmons said.

If the state does receive the grant, the County Board would have a decision to make, Pabich said, on whether to spend county funds to improve the intersection for the few years before the long-term improvements, such as a roundabout, are complete.

The cost of that interim fix is unknown and would now be more than $100,000, Pabich said, as a result of increasing construction costs and the state’s required changes to widen Gordon Road.

If the state does not receive the grant, Pabich said the county would be ready to implement its changes (preventing left turns from Gordon Road) in May of next year, as its design has now been approved by the DOT. Bigger changes such as a roundabout likely would not come to the intersection for another decade-plus in that case, Pabich said.

Increasing accidents in recent years

Accident reports provided by the Door County Sheriff’s Office show that 24 people have been injured, and one was killed, in 25 accidents at the intersection since 2014. The reports do not include accidents in which a car hit a deer.

While most injuries in recent years were reported as minor, the number of accidents at the intersection has been increasing in the past few years.

After there were three or fewer accidents each year from 2014 through 2019, there were five in 2020, three in 2021 and six so far in 2022.

Two serious accidents in 2014 and 2015 resulted in three serious injuries and one death.

The accident reports show that in 12 of the 25 accidents, a vehicle was attempting to turn left from Gordon Road onto Highway 42/57 when it collided with a southbound vehicle on the state highway.

In seven of those 12 cases, driver or witness statements indicated that the driver attempting to turn left might not have been able to see the other vehicle due to another vehicle that was heading south on Highway 42/57 and turning right onto Gordon Road.

In six other accidents (beyond the 12), a vehicle was heading north on the state highway and attempting to turn left onto Gordon Road.