Motorists along U.S. Highway 2 may notice new traffic signs in the Poplar area. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation erected speed advisory signs near the entrances to Northwestern Elementary and Middle schools about two weeks ago, according to Northwest Region Office Maintenance Supervisor Mike Ostrenga.
The speed limit hasn’t changed; it’s still 55. The cautionary signs are there to warn drivers about the school entrances and encourage them to slow down, just like the yellow signs warning of a curve in the road ahead.
The signs are the latest attempt to make busing Maple School District students home safer.
About two years ago, afternoon routes changed to ensure Northwestern High School students got the proper minutes of instruction, according to transportation director Lester Wiese. That meant elementary and middle school students were picked up first, and every bus had to turn left across traffic onto U.S. Highway 2 to travel to Northwestern High School for student pickup.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem, as a large number of parents started transporting their children to and from school to prevent crowding on buses. The end result, Wiese said, is a traffic tangle every afternoon as buses and personal vehicles pull out and thread across traffic at those intersections.
“It is just a nightmare,” he said.
There have been six accidents at the Northwestern Middle School intersection since 2013, one with an injury, according to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. There haven’t been any bus-related accidents at the site yet, Wiese said, but he thinks it's only a matter of time.
"It's extremely dangerous out there and something needs to be done about it," he said. "It's just an accident waiting to happen."
Taking the backroads
In March, the district took a new tactic and started routing buses down back roads in the village of Poplar and town of Maple, a roughly 2.4-mile journey from the rear of Northwestern Middle School down Wiehe Road, Bayfield Road, Gonschorek Loop and a small segment of Douglas County F to Northwestern High School.
About half of the route is along gravel roads. Based on a count of mailboxes, it passes 14 residences. The move drew concern from the residents along the route, in part because of the dust kicked up by the parade of 15 buses in a row. The buses initially drove past twice a day, Wiese said, but the district pared it down to just the afternoon route.
Village and town leaders said they weren’t notified when the district started using the roads, which weren’t built for large vehicle traffic.
“It won’t hold up to that kind of abuse,” said village of Poplar Board president Randy Jones.
Representatives from Maple, Poplar, the DOT and the school district have been holding ad hoc meetings, trying to find solutions. Upgrading the roads is financially prohibitive, and the burden would fall squarely on the shoulders of the municipalities.
Maple Town Board member Marty Laakso said it would cost roughly $200,000 to upgrade that 1.5-mile section of Gonschorek Loop. The town’s annual budget is $400,000.
“We’re all concerned with the safety of students,” Jones said, but continued bus traffic is going to cause a financial strain, as well as create unsafe conditions on those roads.
Damaged culvert closes road
About two weeks ago, half of a 48-inch culvert along Gonschorek Loop collapsed as a grader was going over it., Laakso said. The area is currently closed to through traffic. There is space enough for one car to pass, but not for a bus. That put school buses back on U.S. Highway 2.
Laakso said the culvert is slated to be replaced in the summer of 2022. The town was approved for a state grant of $4,800 for the project. If they replace it early, Laakso said, they would lose that funding.
Then there’s the question of whether the town would even be able to get a culvert right now, as COVID-19 continues to affect the supply chain for manufactured goods. Additionally, Laakso said, the cost to buy the culvert now would be three times what they had planned on spending due to high demand and low supply.
Other options have been considered. Flashing lights could be erected along the highway at a cost of $10,000 each, but neither Poplar nor the district have the funding for such a project.
Grants may be available to upgrade the roads. Jones said he plans to bring the issue up at the next Douglas County towns association meeting and contact legislators.
The school district would not be able to help fund any road project, according to district business manager Paul Staffrude, because the roads aren’t on school property.
At the Monday, Sept. 13, Maple School Board meeting, Staffrude announced that the afternoon bus route will continue to utilize U.S. Highway 2.
“We’re not going to consider using the Gonschorek Loop Road again,” he said. “It’s simply too narrow, it was designed under old specifications that just simply wouldn’t hold up to that kind of traffic.”
Searching for a new solution
Trying to change schedules at schools to change afternoon routes is also not feasible.
“There’s really no clear, easy solutions to not going on Highway 2,” Staffrude said. “It would affect all the schools’ minutes of instruction, bell times, teacher length of days, student pickup and ride times, parent congestion — the list just kind of goes on and on.”
As Jones was driving to the most recent ad hoc committee meeting Sept. 9, he passed a traffic accident along U.S. Highway 2 near Wiehe Road. An eastbound car waiting to turn left onto Wiehe Road was rear-ended by another vehicle, according to the traffic report. It happened right as a bus was waiting to turn out, Wiese said.
Signs are up; flashing lights could be used, but the transportation director doesn’t think they’ll work. The district has reported numerous violations every year of drivers who don’t stop for buses when their stop arms go out.
“They run the flashing red lights on the buses. They’re mandatory to stop there, and they blow by,” Wiese said.
Everyone is worried about safety, but there are no easy solutions.
"We're beating the odds right now, but it's not going to last," Wiese said.