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Madison traffic goal drives development debate

Paul Snyder
paul.snyder@dailyreporter.com

Madison leaders are offering few details of a city goal that would use new developments to account for a 25 percent decrease in automobile traffic.

Yet, with a possible Common Council vote scheduled for next month, the goal could soon be part of the city’s comprehensive plan.

“The overall theory is to basically cut down on car trips to the grocery store and intradistrict travel, and I love it,” said Dane County Supervisor Melanie Hampton. “But if you’re going to be putting goals out there, they should be reasonable and attainable. They’re not just something you throw out there.”

The goal would use a 2005 baseline as the standard for measuring a 25 percent reduction by 2020 in vehicular miles traveled. There are no penalties for not achieving the goal, and no way of determining if trucks and larger vehicles would be measured differently than small hybrid cars.

Even proponents are debating whether it would be more appropriate to measure general traffic counts rather than vehicle miles.

“The numbers would be different,” said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin Inc.

“It’s not the exact same thing, but reducing traffic in the city by 25 percent would be an easier measurement, and it gets at the same goal.”

But a goal is meaningless if ill-defined, said Hampton, a member of the city’s Long Range Transportation Planning Committee and a former employee of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation with a background in civil engineering. She said Madison must have solid numbers to work with before it changes city plans or processes.

“Developers should be thinking of things like accessibility to mass transit,” Hampton said. “And the city can say, ‘This is just a goal,’ but it’s also going to be something that’s considered as part of the approval process. So it better mean something.”

But Alderwoman Satya Rhodes-Conway, who helped write the resolution, said concerns about precise measurements or effects on developers are overstated.

“We’re not setting goals for particular projects,” she said. “It will just be one more question that the Plan Commission can consider when reviewing projects. If we find out in five years that the city’s not moving in the right direction or it spurs more serious discussion, there’s room for that.”

The Plan Commission on Monday approved the goal.

If the Common Council puts the goal in Madison’s comprehensive plan, the traffic reduction becomes a bigger consideration for developers, said Carole Schaeffer, executive director of Smart Growth Greater Madison Inc., an organization representing Madison developers.

Although city planners have discussed reducing vehicular miles traveled in particular neighborhoods, such as the sustainable neighborhood the city is planning for its east side, Schaeffer said it is premature to expand the goal to the entire city.

“Who is the burden really going to fall on?” she asked. “Is it going to be developers, who might have to do extra planning? Or is it going to be on the city to provide more transit alternatives?”

With annual debates over expanding or constricting Madison’s bus service, Hiniker said, the 25 percent goal highlights the need for a regional transit authority.

“Without it, we’re stuck,” he said. “You have to drive, and that’s it.”

Rhodes-Conway said the goal is not meant to drive discussion about a Dane County RTA, but rather a more sustainable city.

It is a discussion worth having, Schaeffer said, but not in terms of an addition to the city’s comprehensive plan.

“I’m hoping the council puts this off until they have more details,” she said. “Work out there is pretty bare right now for developers. They have a tough enough time getting projects.”

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