Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure stuck in the 20th century

By Al Matano, Dane County Supervisor — Imagine an outside force that came into our community and constructed vast barriers that walled off one portion of our community from another. Yes, I am referring to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT).

Taken individually, several projects being considered or already under way might be seen as a reasonable, if somewhat dated, approach to our transportation system. Taken as a whole, the cumulative effect might be seen as an effort to divide and conquer.

In particular, I am writing about four highway projects that are in various stages of the DOT’s approval process:

• Stoughton Road — U.S. Highway 51 from State Route 19 and Interstate 39/90/94 to the north, to the Madison Beltline (U.S. Highways 12 and 14) and Terminal Drive to the south

• Highway 51 — U.S. Highway 51 from the Madison Beltline and Terminal Drive to the north, to the City of Stoughton to the south, and east to its intersection with Interstate 39/90

• The Beltline — the Madison Beltline, which is U.S. Highways 12 and 14, and, in places, 18 and 151

• Verona Road — U.S. Highways 18 and 151 from the Beltline south to County Route PD

I believe that our goals should be to advance transit, bicycle, and pedestrian friendly roads that serve our automotive traffic needs without unduly burdening adjoining neighborhoods or dividing neighborhoods from each other. The cumulative impact of these projects may be, instead, to encircle our community with highways and to shift transportation priorities from those we hold as a community to a different, non-conforming vision

STOUGHTON ROAD

For decades Stoughton Road has offered a somewhat conflicted profile, somewhere between that of an urban freeway and an urban boulevard. As currently constructed, it transitions somewhat abruptly between controlled interchanges and signalized intersections. It is generally a divided, four-lane highway, increasing to six lanes for short stretches.

DOT staff indicated that the Department was considering three types of treatments for the roadway, ranging from modest improvements to a freeway. Department staff indicated that different treatments would be considered for different segments of the road.

At a meeting in December 2013, the Department revealed its plans for the road. Throughout the corridor, the DOT plans for the road appeared to be the most elaborate and pavement intensive scenario for the segment in question, with ramps flying through the air and, in several instances, making it more difficult to get to a destination on the opposite side of the road.

At the same time, members of the community, as well as some members of the Madison Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), began speaking about the possibility of reconfiguring the roadway to be an urban boulevard the entire length of the roadway. An example was provided of a segment of an inner city freeway in Rochester, N.Y., which was removed and replaced with a local roadway.

This option was given no consideration by DOT. It should be. Elsewhere in Madison, the east-west corridor is served by University Avenue and East Washington Avenue. These roadways are almost entirely signalized with access to local businesses and residences along the way.

At present the plans for Stoughton Road appear to be on hold. However, the fear is that DOT’s plan is to expand Stoughton Road so that it may serve as an alternative route while DOT expands the Madison segment of the Interstate from 4 to 6 lanes.

What DOT should do:

• Analyze the boulevard option with a seriousness that it is possible that it could be selected.

• Add a parallel multi-use trail throughout the corridor.

• Increase crossings of the highway for local traffic as well as pedestrians and bicyclists.

• Incorporate transit into the corridor.

• If the boulevard concept is not adopted, scale back some of the excessive treatments of interchanges.

• Leave the roadway as a four lane roadway; do not expand to six lanes.

HIGHWAY 51

DOT also recently presented its ideas on how to reconstruct the southern segment of U.S. Highway 51. The highway heads due south from the Madison Beltline, through the Village of McFarland, through some relatively rural lands in the Town of Dunn, through the center of the City of Stoughton, and east to meet up with Interstate 39/90 several miles east of Stoughton.

The roadway is a divided four lane roadway north of McFarland, a four lane urban roadway through McFarland, and a two lane roadway south of McFarland. Further complicating the path of the roadway is the fact that the Town of Dunn segment of the roadway traverses wetlands and its course is hemmed in on the east by Lake Kegonsa.

The segment of Highway 51 from McFarland to Stoughton is known for being a dangerous road due to the fact that it traverses some challenging topography and has several non-signalized intersections in areas where motorists travel at a high rate of speed.

Needed and simple safety improvements were not constructed while DOT was working on a plan to expand the road to four lanes. A four lane road in this area would mar our countryside. Projections for growth in the City of are ambiguous at best, and do not appear to support the proposal in any near term year.

Another alternative that has been suggested is to allow U.S. Highway 14, which is already a four lane, controlled access, divided highway, to serve the capacity needs for the north south traffic in this corridor. From the Village of Oregon, Highway 138 serves the east-west corridor to the City of Stoughton. Upgrading Highway 138, even in an upgraded version of its current two lane profile, would serve to make the necessary east-west connection to get traffic safely from the Madison Beltline to Stoughton.

East of Stoughton, DOT has mapped several alternatives for bypass highways. These proposed roadways would serve an area with extremely low traffic counts. At the same time, they would traverse areas of wetlands and high quality farmland. The only possible rationale for constructing such roadways in this corridor would be to create an alternative route to the Interstate.

What DOT should do:

• Plan for immediate safety improvements to intersections, particularly in the area around the southern end of Lake Waubesa in the Town of Dunn.

• Leave the two lane segments of the road as a two lane roadway.

• Review the possibility of providing an alternative route to Stoughton via U.S. 14 and State Route 138.

• Analyze future growth areas of Stoughton to determine what direction(s) Stoughton is likely to grow in.

• Abandon plans for an off-route bypass east of Stoughton.

MADISON BELTLINE

Regarding the Beltline, DOT staff have been conducting a process they call “PEL” — planning and environmental linkages. A number of visioning sessions have been conducted, including a new round this month. Department staff traced the history of the roadway from a rural two lane bypass to its existence today as a heavily trafficked urban roadway. It is a controlled access roadway for its entire length. It is six lanes in width through much of its length, narrowing to four lanes for its western segment.

The community sees the Beltline as a problematic roadway. It divides neighborhoods and is generally filled with traffic. Community visions for the roadway, including those presented at the City of Madison Master Transportation Plan session, envision the possibility of a transit corridor in the center of the roadway, along with increased opportunities for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians to get across the Beltline at many more locations than is possible today. An earlier study of Verona Road listed four local roadways that could be extended to cross the Beltline.

One interesting observation that DOT staff have made about the Beltline is that the majority of trips on the road are for four or fewer exits. Thus, increased crossings of the road and connecting some of the collector streets near and parallel to the Beltline might keep some of those travelling on the Beltline off of it.

For instance, one idea is to extend Watts Road eastbound from where it serves Woodman’s west to cross the Beltline, connecting to Odana Road a short distance west of Whitney Way. A series of local roads like this, coupled with added pedestrian-bicycle facilities, would reduce the role the Beltline plays as an impediment to local traffic.

In addition, bus transportation should be added to the existing roadway. DOT should find ways to fund such efforts. In the long term, if facing a substantial reconstruction, a center lane guideway for bus transportation or rail transportation should be installed in the roadway.

Another idea to improve the flow of automobile and truck traffic on the roadway would be to consolidate some interchanges. The flow of traffic on the roadway is impeded by far too many interchanges at closer distances than those called for in roadway functioning guides. Interchanges like those for South Park Street/Highway 14 and South Fish Hatchery Road could be consolidated into one interchange, with feeder lanes allowing access to both routes. This would allow for more free flowing traffic on the Beltline itself, with drivers exiting and entering the roadway at fewer points.

Absent operational improvements to the roadway, or possibly in addition to those improvements, the fear is that DOT would expand the capacity of the roadway to eight lanes in the segments where it is currently six, and to six lanes in the segments where it is currently four. This would be devastating to our community.

The road lies close to our neighborhoods, and can be heard for miles. It is closely squeezed in beside neighborhoods. If expanded in this manner, the short distance between the roadway and neighboring properties would be reduced even further, with devastating effect on our neighborhoods.

The good news is that DOT staff indicated that if construction were to be undertaken, it would take place in 2025 at the earliest. Hopefully, in that time, current trends of somewhat reduced reliance on transportation via the automobile might be confirmed, leading to a move away from construction of a larger roadway. 

What DOT should do:

• Incorporate transit into the corridor. This could be a center lane transit facility for rail or bus. It could also include funding options to support Madison Metro.

• Increase crossings of the highway for local traffic as well as pedestrians and bicyclists.

• Leave the roadway in its current capacity, with no additional lanes.

VERONA ROAD

Of all the projects, Verona Road is the one that is already under construction. However, DOT has offered a short term vision for the roadway and a long term vision. Both are worthy of comment.

There is great uncertainty among transportation planners as to what traffic is served by Verona Road. The longest haul travelers are those travelling from Iowa — and perhaps points west — to Green Bay. As a backbone route within Wisconsin, U.S. 151 is one of the roadways that comprises a small percentage of the total lane miles in the state, but carries a much higher proportion of the traffic.

Next, there is regional traffic. This would include individuals who commute by automobile from Mount Horeb to Madison, a distance of some 18 miles. At the shortest end of the spectrum are those local users, such as those who travel to the Home Depot store at the northern end of the roadway.

Verona Road is merely two miles in length. It is currently a four-lane divided roadway, with signalized intersections. However, it carries a large amount of traffic. One big change in recent years is the huge success of Epic Systems in Verona. This has created a huge demand for “reverse” commuting to Verona.

The north segment, from Raymond Road to the Beltline, was completed this year. An underpass was created for Summit Drive, allowing travel to and from Home Depot without making left turns across Verona Road. It remains to be seen, but the underpass of Verona Road may provide an outlet for the Allied Drive neighborhood, and reduce the isolation of the community caused by proximity to the highway.

Currently under construction is a single point interchange between Verona Road — and Midvale Boulevard to the north — and the Beltline. This form of interchange retains traffic signals, but moves them to a central location to reduce the number of sequences.

The second segment of short term improvements has a northern edge of Raymond Road, while the southern edge is County Highway PD. A full controlled interchange is planned for the intersection Verona Road and County PD.

In a presentation by DOT staff and its consultants on this segment of road, what stood out most notably was the spillover effect of construction of the Verona Road–PD interchange.

Roadways to the west of Verona Road would need to be reconfigured in every scenario. Local access to existing roads would be impacted. Through traffic by bicycle would be negatively impacted, as crossings of PD and collector streets Kapec Road/Anton Drive would be rearranged to provide adequate distances to the interchange.

The long term vision DOT has presented for Verona Road is a below grade freeway, to be constructed in 20 or so years. This would be a massive roadway and hopefully will never come to pass. If it were to be constructed, it should include a center section for bus and/or rail transit. With the great number of Epic employees travelling by bus, there would be sufficient ridership to support such a facility.

What DOT should do:

• Continue and expand efforts to provide access to and from the Allied Drive neighborhood.

• Identify additional ways to mitigate the negative impacts of the proximity of the highway to this disadvantaged neighborhood.

• Study ways to construct the PD - Verona Road interchange while minimizing impacts to local traffic flow west of the interchange.

• For the 20 year proposal, include a transit line in the median. This idea becomes even more topical now, after years of prosperity and expansion by Epic Systems in Verona.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE . . .

Three other potential projects loom.

The Interstates

To the extent that DOT resembles the Borg (“Resistance is futile”), it is nowhere so true as here. Interstate 39/90 has been reconstructed through northern Illinois, and the Wisconsin DOT has begun work at the state line moving up through Beloit and Janesville. The current northern terminus of DOT’s plans is the Madison Beltline. However, DOT has begun the process to study the expansion of the roadway to the Wisconsin Dells. The numbers of acres of land impacted by the expansion is hard to imagine.

The North Beltline

Candy coated as “the North Mendota Parkway,” this roadway is envisioned as a way of serving sprawl north of Lake Mendota. The Department of Transportation itself is actually not particularly interested in the road, as it is currently proposed as a 45 mile per hour roadway similar to County PD through Fitchburg. It is promoted by local developers and its future is uncertain.

Highway 12 revisited

Environmentalists fought long and hard in efforts to defeat plans to expand Highway 12. The end result was a four lane divided highway, but with access at traffic lights throughout the corridor.

The contradiction is that it serves both local farming communities and through traffic. In many locations it is the only road to get from one point to another, and thus local traffic needs to be served by it.

A consultant has put together a preliminary sketch of what it would look like to perform a freeway conversion of the road. The result is a map of spaghetti-like service roads and the like to allow local traffic and non-stop through traffic as well. My guess is that the first draft of this concept was so complex that it is a non-starter. I’ve been wrong before.

Conclusions

In the post World War Two era, the United States embarked upon construction of highways to serve as the backbone of our nation’s transportation system. Today, we increasingly see the advantages of walkable neighborhoods, getting around by bicycle, and linkages by transit.

At the same time, DOT projects increasing traffic volumes, largely in the absence of these trends. Luckily, there will be enough time to apply new concepts and traffic projections to some of these projects.

We should be worried about cumulative impacts of these roadways. Taken as a collection, they project a vision of the highway as the prize, and our communities as places that slow down through travelers.

We have the opportunity to offer a decidedly different vision for each of these roadways. Our community’s needs and motivations greatly differ from those of the DOT.

DOT will reveal its plans for each on its own timeline; we need to be ever vigilant in keeping up with those timelines. At the same time, we should urge the Department to provide an overview of the cumulative impact of the projects as a set.

Wisconsin’s state government at this moment may not seem like a welcoming body for visionary ideas. However, this too will pass and with the extended timeline for some of these projects, will pass before some of the final decisions are made.