Highway 23 Accidents Puts Human Cost on Liberal Legal Obstruction

With spring in the Badger State comes increased driving on state roads as Wisconsinites try to capture as much of Mother Nature’s goodness before winter’s inevitability once again sets in.

Unfortunately for residents in Fond du Lac and Sheboygan counties this time also comes with a sense of dread for the 19-mile stretch of road along Wisconsin State Highway 23 from Plymouth to Fond du Lac. While not one of the deadliest highways in the state, it certainly has a reputation for being on of the most dangerous.

That is why for decades local officials working in a bipartisan fashion have tried to expand the highway from two to four lanes. Said to be necessary to deal with traffic flow caused by economic growth between the two cities, the expansion would also deal with the worst part of spring thru fall traffic on Highway 23: Long caravans of cars behind slow-moving agricultural traffic.

This occurs when a slow-moving truck, tractor, combine harvester, or agricultural machinery causes a large number of cars to trail behind it. With the highway being only two-lane wide, this has made passing these kinds of vehicles an extremely dangerous proposition as vehicles risk head-on collisions with on-coming traffic they cannot see from a safe distance. As a result, people are being hurt who otherwise would have been able to pass safely with a four-lane stretch of road.

After decades of wrangling with the state Department of Transportation and delays with the project start date, local officials finally believed the expansion was about to go through in May 2015. Yet days before construction was about to start, federal Judge Lynn Adelman granted an injunction on behalf of the Madison-based environmental group “1,000 Friends of Wisconsin.” As a result of the lawsuit, the state was unable to use $151 million in federal highways needed to complete the project. According to the group, the expansion is unnecessary and DOT should instead install “passing lanes” along the road; a suggestion local residents and frequent Highway 23 drivers find ridiculous.

Ironically, due to “1,000 Friends” very lawsuit against the Highway 23 expansion, the DOT says it can’t even consider the “passing lane” option until litigation concludes. Raising a question as to whether “1,000 Friends” wants better highway policy in Wisconsin, or is just extremely anti-transportation.

As a result, construction never began and the accidents continue. Two extremely dangerous accidents kicked off the 2017 driving season over this past weekend. One was so bad, it shut down the highway in both directions for hours as EMTs worked to save the lives of five people – one sustaining life-threatening injuries.

Sadly, these accidents have prompted what has become a macabre annual ritual among the state legislators representing the area near Highway 23 issuing a press release reminding pointing out how expanding the highway could have been avoided. That came Monday through the offices of state senators Devin LeMahieu (R-Fond du Lac), Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac), and Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), and state representatives Tyler Vorpagel (R-Plymouth), Terry Katsma (R-Oostburg), and Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) as they urged immediate action on an appeal of Adelman’s decision to the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago.

“Unfortunately, the news of serious accidents occurring on Highway 23 is far from surprising. ‘Accident on Highway 23’ has become an all too familiar headline in the districts we represent. This two-lane stretch of highway averages an accident every 8 days. Many of these accidents could have been prevented had the expansion project been allowed to proceed.

The Highway 23 project is by far the most important issue on our constituents’ minds with almost universal support. We continually hear from local residents and the business community about the necessity of this expansion project and their overall safety concerns. Many share their anecdotal stories of near misses, a friend or loved one who has gotten into an accident on 23, or how they avoid the 19 mile stretch at all costs and choose to take less direct county roads for fear of their own safety.

It’s been nearly two years since Judge Lynn Adelman halted the Highway 23 expansion project and the case remains under appeal today. A full 4 lane expansion is vital to the safety of our roads and strength of our local economy. On behalf of the hundreds of constituents who have contacted our offices on this issue, we urge you to prioritize this important case. Thank you for your consideration.”

As has happened with previous press releases like this, neither Judge Adelman nor “1,000 Friends” offered much in terms of public comments regarding recent accidents on Highway 23.

Ironically, Adelman is only on the federal bench thanks to a short-sighted piece of political maneuvering by former Gov. Tommy Thompson and state Senate Republicans back in 1997-98.

Seeing a change at capturing his open seat in a subsequent special election and retake a 17-16 seat majority in the chamber, state Republicans offered little opposition when Adelman, a notorious liberal state senator, was nominated to the federal bench by former President Bill Clinton thanks to the suggestion of former U.S. Senator (and his former state Senate seatmate) Russ Feingold. As a result, Adelman has for 20 years become the go-to activist judge for liberal groups throughout Wisconsin who are seeking favorable rulings on issues related to things such as Voter ID, criminal justice, transportation and environmental issues.

Republicans for their part did retake the state Senate with the election of former state Senate Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin). They would then lose the chamber to the Democrats months later in the 1998 midterm elections.

That sure was some kind of political trade-off.