WI: The $140 Million Question: Fifteen Years Later, North-South Corridor Backlash Haunts Traffic Study

In 1998, Wisconsin set aside money to build a new road through La Crosse.

But nobody wanted it.

Fifteen years later, there's money on the books, the topic remains as sensitive as ever, and Department of Transportation officials are asking if it's even worth studying.

Some argue the need is there, but, with traffic volume essentially static for the past decade and opposition to building a road through the La Crosse River marsh or city neighborhoods still strong, even discussing the issue remains a challenge.

"The department is at a crossroads," said Joe Olson, southwest region director for the DOT. "We've basically been sitting on this corridor since 1998."

Talks of a north-south corridor date back to the 1940s, and there have been eight studies completed over the past four decades.

But there has been little action since 1998, when voters overwhelmingly passed a resolution blocking the DOT's plan to build a highway connecting Hwy. 157 to La Crosse's South Side, bisecting the marsh and turning Sixth and Seventh streets into one-way highways.

With an original cost of $80 million, the La Crosse corridor price tag has grown to more than $140 million. Of the 21 enumerated major projects on the books, only four have larger completion costs.

For comparison, the annual highway rehabilitation and resurfacing budget for the entire 19-county southwest district, which includes La Crosse, Madison, Janesville and Beloit, is just $68.5 million.

"I look at it as a very, very big project," Olson said.

DOT officials indicate that if La Crosse doesn't want that money, there are other communities that do.

"We need to consider whether or not we take this project off the books," Olson said. "Is there enough (support) that it makes sense to spend several million dollars on a study, or is that throwing good money after bad?"

In short, it may be time for the region to fish or cut bait.

Looking for support

For many in the area, it's impossible to disentangle the study from the north-south corridor proposal that was voted down.

"You can't even really talk about transportation planning because folks move right to the 5B-1," said La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat. "In some ways that is really holding us back on transportation in the area."

Thus far, there's no sign of strong support for the study, which Olson said could take several years and cost millions.

Even the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce, which backed the north-south corridor in 1998, has yet to take a position, though it did host an informational meeting in January.

"Nothing's been brought to the board of directors," said Dave Booth, past chairman. "The chamber has not yet taken any action on this issue."

Local political leaders are cautiously supportive of a study, though neither the city of La Crosse nor the county board has taken up a formal resolution.

The La Crosse Area Planning Committee has sent a letter of support for completing the study, and director Tom Faella said the committee will likely take up a resolution of support at its March meeting.

La Crosse County Board Chairwoman Tara Johnson said the issue will likely come before the board's executive committee in February. She said she favors moving forward with a study, though she doesn't have a sense whether the entire board would support it.

Johnson suggested establishing a set of thresholds at which the community could agree there is a need. That could be a certain amount of time to drive from La Crosse to Holmen or an impact to businesses.

"I am of the opinion that studying something is always a good thing," Johnson said.

No La Crosse mayor since 1997 has supported a north-south corridor, and Kabat said he isn't about to end that streak.

"I made it pretty clear all through the campaign ... I do not support doing any kind of a fourth corridor through the marsh," he said. "The community has spoken loud and clear. We need to look at other alternatives."

Kabat said he will recommend the council pass a resolution to move forward on a study, "with the caveat ... that a fourth route through the marsh just isn't going to get support."

Confronting distrust

Charley Weeth is president of Livable Neighborhoods, the group formed to oppose the north-south corridor in 1998.

"Of course the DOT perceives there is and will be a 'congestion' problem with regard to traffic!" he wrote in an email. "And for the average person that has to slow down or even stop a few times on any of the three corridors on a weekday afternoon, there is definitely a congestion problem."

The real problem, Weeth said, is the DOT's unattainable standards on urban highways — and the notion that increased lane capacity will only exacerbate the problem, encouraging more suburban growth.

Olson and others with the DOT acknowledge cynicism about the study.

"We don't want to come across as forcing anything on people they don't want," said Jeff Gust, the DOT's southwest region planning chief. "But we do see some traffic concerns. We feel they need to be addressed. We want to know if the communities think so."

Faella said he trusts the DOT is approaching the study with an open mind.

"I don't believe the DOT is trying to force that project onto the citizens of La Crosse," he said. "If they were, they would have done it."

But because of its designation as a major project, there are limitations on how the money can be spent.

Under state law, major projects must meet certain criteria, generally limited to at least 2.5 miles of new highway or five miles of new lanes on an existing highway.

In short, the money must be spent on roads, not public transit. But Olson said transit and transportation alternatives will be a component of the study, if it moves forward.

The DOT must also factor in plans to overhaul Hwy. 16, with the Medary overhead likely to need replacement in the next decade. While the DOT had hoped to have a connection between Hwy. 157 and Gillette Street in place to handle that traffic during the bridge replacement, Olson said it's likely too late.

The reconstruction could be an opportunity to turn Hwy. 16 into the main north-south corridor.

"When you do reconstruct it, do you go to six lanes?" Faella asks. "The true fact is there's no easy answer. There's no real good place to put a new road."

Do we have a traffic problem?

Ask and you'll hear that La Crosse has traffic problems, with most complaints targeted at Hwy 16.

Indeed, it's one of the county's busiest roads, with two sections exceeding the DOT's standards for free-flowing traffic.

But the data paint a slightly different picture.

In La Crosse County, the average commute time to work is 17.5 minutes, one of the lowest in the state and in the lowest tenth of the more than 800 U.S. counties where the Census Bureau makes such estimates.

Nearly 65 percent of workers in the two-county La Crosse metropolitan area get to work in less than 20 minutes, according to Census Bureau estimates. That ranks La Crosse well below half of the nation's metro areas, even those of similar size.

Within the county, commute times vary by the distance from the city of La Crosse, where only a quarter of all workers need more than 20 minutes to get to their jobs. In the city of Onalaska, it's 35 percent.

But more than three quarters of all workers in the metro area get to and from work in single-occupancy vehicles. Only about 1 percent rely on public transit.

That, Weeth said, is a direct consequence of the abundant free parking in La Crosse, including some 1,500 stalls in downtown ramps built at public expense.

"Until and unless employers and institutions charge fair market rates for off-street parking, and the city of La Crosse establishes a comprehensive parking policy for both on- and off-street parking, so drivers instead of property owners and taxpayers pay for parking, SOVs and the roads and parking lots required to serve them will dominate our community."

However, DOT planners are focused on potential future problems.

Under the agency's 2035 traffic projections, many segments of Hwys. 35, 53 and 16 would exceed their level "E" capacity, meaning significant delays for motorists.

At the worst intersections — Rose and George streets, La Crosse and Losey — drivers could be waiting six to eight minutes, through several traffic signal cycles.

Diminishing expectations

Yet traffic projections nationwide have lately come under scrutiny as actual vehicle miles traveled have declined for eight straight years.

Indeed, the north-south corridor was proposed in large part to meet anticipated growth that has failed to materialize.

In the 1991 study done leading up to the proposal, 20-year traffic projections for Copeland Avenue, Lang Drive and Hwy. 16 were anywhere from 8.6 to 39 percent higher than the actual volumes recorded in 2012.

"A lot of traffic studies and projections are fairly flawed now because they used flawed assumptions," said Eric Sundquist, managing director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative, a Madison-based think tank promoting environmentally sustainable and economically equitable transportation policy.

The reasons for the decline aren't entirely clear, though economic downturn, gas prices and changing tastes could have something to do with it. The U.S. has also reached a saturation point or sorts, Sundquist said. In the 1970s and '80s, women were joining the workforce, families were buying more cars and moving out of urban centers. Those trends have reached a plateau.

"You can't spend an unlimited amount of time behind the wheel," he said.

But Sundquist acknowledges that national trends can't be applied to every situation. Development, population growth and commuting patterns all can affect traffic levels.

Nearly all of the county's population growth during the past quarter century — some 16,500 people — has been in the northern suburbs. The village of Holmen has nearly tripled in size, while Onalaska has grown by 40 percent. Population growth over the next two decades will likely be concentrated there as well.

Still, those who remember the fight of 1998 say it might be time to move on.

"In my opinion, the money can be better spent elsewhere," said UW-La Crosse history professor Chuck Lee, a founding member of the La Crosse River Marsh Coalition, an informal group that emerged from the early corridor planning stages.

Lee notes the city has four north-south routes within just a couple of miles.

"That's quite a few lanes of traffic," he said. "I think people are pretty good at finding their way home and back."

Copyright 2014 - La Crosse Tribune, Wis.