12/31/17 – Wisconsin State Journal

Questions are dogging the future of a state study into what long-term improvements may be needed for the Madison Beltline.

As the aging, increasingly congested main artery for the state’s fastest-growing urban area, advocates say the Beltline may need such improvements in years to come. It also has crash rates, on some stretches, more than double state averages for similar freeways.

But federal transportation officials last year urged the state Department of Transportation to hit the brakes on the Beltline study, saying other projects are further along and should advance first.

The state budget enacted in September didn’t provide a revenue infusion for transportation, leaving such funds in short supply through 2019 — and causing Gov. Scott Walker’s administration to curtail its road-building ambitions.

That’s causing some to predict work on the Beltline study could be slowed or ended altogether.

“Getting this study done on time would appear to be tenuous,” said Craig Thompson, a spokesman for the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, a business, labor and government alliance that advocates more funding for roads, bridges and transit.

The DOT has not communicated any progress on the study for months, according to Bill Schaefer, planning manager for the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board, which partners with state and federal transportation officials.

“It’s basically stopped. Nothing’s been done since early this year,” Schaefer said.

DOT spokeswoman Rebecca Kikkert said the DOT is waiting to hear feedback on the study from the Federal Highway Administration before deciding on next steps.

Kikkert did not respond when asked if the department is considering delaying or canceling the study. She acknowledged in October that “all major projects in the state, including the Madison Beltline Study, are undergoing an evaluation of cost, scope and priority.”

Even if the study is completed, Thompson said there likely won’t be enough state money to carry out whatever recommendations it makes.

19-mile stretch

“The only way this would be able to be funded is if there’s some agreement on new revenue (for transportation) in a future budget,” Thompson said.

The study, which began in 2012, looks at a 19-mile stretch of the Beltline from Highway 14 in Middleton to Highway N in Cottage Grove.

While it’s not yet known what the study could recommend for the Beltline, one Madison official estimated it could call for improvements totaling $1 billion.

Part of that cost could come from improvements such as adding lanes or reconfiguring interchanges, but part could come from rebuilding the existing Beltline, which was built in the 1950s as a two-lane bypass of Downtown Madison.

DOT has spent about $9 million on the Beltline study so far, with $13 million more required to complete it, DOT told the state Transportation Projects Commission earlier this year.

The study will “anticipate transit, freight, bike and pedestrian needs throughout” the corridor, the report said. It doesn’t include proposals to rebuild the Beltline Interchange with Interstate 39-90 or to improve Stoughton Road, which are proceeding separately.

Schaefer said the study also was slated to consider if improvements outside the Beltline could alleviate east-west congestion through the Madison area. Options include new freeways or parkways, such as one running north of Lake Mendota or an “outer Beltline” south of the existing one, or new transit projects such as the Bus Rapid Transit corridor being developed by city of Madison officials, Schaefer said.

The Beltline study is set to enter a critical environmental phase next year, a process that could take five years or more. State lawmakers then would have to approve funding for whatever projects the study recommends.

But the Highway Administration warned the DOT last year against advancing the Beltline study to the environmental phase, saying it “does not believe the timing is right to initiate another project in the (environmental phase) when there are so many other projects that are further advanced and should be completed.”

‘No capacity remaining’

Meanwhile, the DOT appears to be focusing its limited resources on immediate or maintenance-related needs instead of long-term or more ambitious proposals.

The DOT recently scrapped a study of potential improvements to Interstate 39-90-94 from Madison to Wisconsin Dells. It also announced, at least in the short term, it won’t reconstruct a key stretch of I-94 in Milwaukee between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges.

Republican state leaders have been at odds for years on how to fund roads, bridges and transit.

The impasse led to a 2½-month delay in finalizing the current state budget, which runs through June 2019.

Assembly Republicans have said more money is needed for transportation, but Gov. Scott Walker and key Senate Republicans said the DOT must do more with existing resources. Democratic lawmakers also have said more funding is needed.

Traffic on the Beltline has grown rapidly in the last two decades, DOT data show.

On one stretch between West Broadway and Monona Drive — the only stretch for which DOT provided near-continuous traffic-count data over the last two decades — average traffic volumes soared from 76,000 vehicles a day in 1993 to about 120,000 vehicles a day in 2016.

Major Beltline upgrades were just completed through the addition of lanes, from four to six, from Whitney Way to Verona Road.

The Beltline interchange with Verona Road also was rebuilt as part of that project, with construction work on Verona Road still ongoing.

But congestion on the Beltline is only expected to increase in future years, as the Madison area is projected to continue to grow rapidly.

“Dane County is on pace to add about 120,000 residents between 2010 and 2040,” according to the website for the study. “There is no capacity remaining on the Beltline to serve this growth.”

Accident hotspots

A 2009 DOT study found population and job growth in the Madison area would cause the Beltline to become “extremely congested” by 2030. That, in turn, could increase its already-high crash rates while boosting travel times and costs for commuters and businesses.

The study also notes that “numerous sections of the Beltline have crash rates higher than the state average for similar urban highways in Wisconsin.”

Accident hotspots are found near Highway K near Middleton and between John Nolen Drive and Rimrock Road in South Madison, according to data from parts of the Beltline study published on the DOT website.

For the stretch from Highway K to Parmenter Street, crash rates were nearly triple the statewide average for large urban freeways during the period studied, from 2008 to 2012. Between John Nolen and Rimrock, crash rates were more than double the average.

From Verona Road east to Rimrock, crash rates in each of the segments studied also were significantly higher than the state average.

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said he’s not optimistic the state will be able to fund major improvements to the Beltline because “we don’t have the money.”

“It’s not like these issues are going to go away,” Erpenbach said. “They’re just going to get worse.”