Two decades after it was first suggested, a four-lane freeway through much of Barron and Polk counties – paralleling the current path taken by U.S. Hwy. 8 – remains in the long-range plans of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

However, the freeway plan is just a concept for now, although it could be revived if traffic conditions warrant, two WisDOT officials said Monday, Dec. 9, 2019.

“We are saying the need for a four-lane facility is within a 20-year time horizon,” said Marc Bowker, planning engineer with WisDOT’s Eau Claire office.

Beth Cunningham, WisDOT project manager at the department’s Spooner office, agreed.

“We are doing small incremental improvements to U.S. Highway 8 to keep things moving along as best we can until there comes a day when volumes are just too high for the current facility,” she said in a Dec. 9 email. “This highway is constantly being monitored for mobility and safety concerns.”

The U.S. Hwy. 8 plan was on the agenda Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, when the 15-member Transportation Project Commission met in the Governor’s Conference Room at the State Capitol in Madison.

The commission learned that “for the forseeable future, (transportation) needs on this corridor can be addressed with standard improvement and safety projects.”

WisDOT’s official press release said the commission meets in the fall of odd-numbered years “by looking at projects to advance to the environmental study stage.”

In the case of the U.S. Hwy. 8 freeway, the environmental study was completed more than five years ago, in April 2014.

The project dates back to 2001, when WisDOT noted that Hwy. 8 traffic volumes had reached 10,000 vehicles per day throughout the 40-mile stretch of road from St. Croix Falls (on the west) to Cameron (on the east).

“The economy was booming at the time, and the 10,000 (vehicles per day) figure is a trigger point” for this type of planning, Bowker said.

But by the time the project reached a stage where the project was to be inserted in future transportation budgets, “the economy had dropped, and traffic volume along with it,” Bowker said. “The majority of that volume is still below the 10,000 average daily traffic count.”

The 2014 plan went so far as to list specific properties WisDOT would need to buy to create a path for the freeway, but “it never reached the point where we put restrictions on any of the properties,” Bowker added.