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Wisconsin may raise speed limit to 70 mph on interstates, portions of other highways

RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- A bill that could boost interstate speed limits is accelerating through the Wisconsin legislature. State senators last week passed a bill that would allow the state's transportation department to increase the speed limits on ...

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Traffic on Interstate 94 through Hudson could be moving faster if lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker approve legislation giving the state’s transportation department the authority to set 70 mph speeds on freeways. (Forum News Service photo by Mike Longaecker)

RIVER FALLS, Wis. - A bill that could boost interstate speed limits is accelerating through the Wisconsin legislature.

State senators last week passed a bill that would allow the state’s transportation department to increase the speed limits on Wisconsin’s interstate system from 65 mph to 70 mph.

The bill, which already passed the lower house, would bring Wisconsin up to speed with its surrounding neighbors. Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan all allow 70 mph driving on their interstate roads.

Senators passed an amended version of the bill, that raises  the speed limit to 70 mph only on four-lane roads that have entrance and exit ramps, not those that have at-grade access.

State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, said that provision made the difference for the bill, which last year passed the Assembly but died in the Senate.

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“There was concern” for safety, Harsdorf said.

She said senators “absolutely” found the legislation more palatable with the at-grade amendment. Harsdorf said her support stems from the fact that Wisconsin is an island within other states that allow 70 mph interstate speeds.

“I thought that was a compelling case,” she said.

The bill does not call for an automatic boost to interstate speeds. The legislation gives the Department of Transportation the authority to set the limits.   However, the Department of Transportation expects to have new speed limit signs posted in time for the summer tourist season.

DOT officials have also said they plan to raise the limit to 70 mph on portions of U.S. Highway 51, U.S. Highway 53 and U.S. Highway 141.

According to a fiscal estimate, it would cost $238,663 to post new signs around the state. The transportation department estimates it will cost another $126,000 to investigate other portions of freeway and highway in Wisconsin.

A bump in freeway speeds in Wisconsin could have an impact on the Minnesota side, as well. Though Minnesota allows 70 mph traffic on its interstates, it does not on the portion of I-94 between the St. Croix River and the east metro.

Minnesota State Traffic Engineer Sue Groth said the 65 mph speed limit set between the St. Croix River and Woodbury took into account “the fact that Wisconsin’s was 65.”

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“That did, yes, play a factor,” she said.

If the western Wisconsin portion of I-94 bumps up to 70 mph, “there’s a good possibility” Minnesota would be in line for an increase on its portion of the interstate.  

“We would go back and re-study that area,” she said.

St. Croix County Highway Commissioner Tim Ramberg said pros and cons surround the prospect of boosting speeds along Interstate 94.

On the one hand, it allows commerce to move faster, he said. On the other hand, he said “unintended consequences” could exist.

Ramberg said that involves driving habits where motorists leave one stretch of roadway onto another with a slower speed limit, sometimes not noticing the change.

“People do it unintentionally,” he said.

But that does create safety concerns, Ramberg said.

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He also worried that drivers who regularly drive 75 in a 65 mph zone could see it as a chance to go even faster.

“Are they going to go 85?” he said, wondering aloud whether Wisconsin State Patrol troopers allow a speed cushion. “What is that plateau?”

The bill went back to the state Assembly on Wednesday, where lawmakers considered the Senate’s amendment for interchange-only highways.

Gov. Scott Walker will “evaluate the bill,” according to a spokesperson.

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