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Madison central park plan at a crossroads

Paul Snyder
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Madison Central Park planners are at the mercy of railroad officials who could close three area crossings and maroon a significant portion of the development.

“There are no alternatives right now,” said Bill Barker, chairman of the Madison Central Park Design and Implementation Task Force. “Frankly, I don’t know what we can do.”

The task force last week released a conceptual plan for a downtown Madison Central Park between East Wilson and Main streets. The park would include a performance area, a great lawn and a garden area.

But just before the task force released its plan, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. asked the state Railroad Commission to close the three crossings on the isthmus. If the Brearly Street crossing is closed, access to the park’s performance area would be cut off.

Bill Gardner, president and chief executive of Wisconsin & Southern, said the company proposed the closings to enhance safety and local convenience.

“This isn’t an issue of crossings five miles away from each other,” he said. “There are three of these about 400 feet apart.

“Who wants that? If you turn the streets into cul-de-sacs, there’s less traffic, it’s safer for kids, and any time you can close a crossing, you reduce the chances of incident.”

Gardner said he does not know of any incidents at the crossings.

The issue is the latest railroad track-related conflict to challenge plans for the park, which have been in the works for several years. Initial plans called for the city to relocate the tracks, but Barker said that plan was scrapped when Madison could not figure out how to raise $10 million for the job.

Tom Running, the railroad commission’s safety analyst, said the commission only has had a few informal meetings with city planners. He would not speculate on how long state deliberations will take, but said there likely will be public hearings and more discussions with the city.

There is a chance the commission and city could find a way to close the Brearly Street crossing while maintaining pedestrian access to the park’s performance area, Barker said. If that happens, the timing of the commission’s decision on closing crossings will not affect a preliminary schedule of building the park’s first phase by November 2010. The first phase centers on bicycle and pedestrian path improvements.

“But if there’s no way neighbors can get to that performance area and the railroad completely maroons it, we’re going to have a problem,” Barker said. “We’re going to have to come to some kind of understanding with this whole (railroad) thing, because it just keeps popping up.”

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