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."