Madison’s Beltline isn’t getting any wider anytime soon. Transportation officials don’t expect a major improvement project for more than a decade.
Yet the number of cars and trucks on the Beltline continues to increase. About 139,000 vehicles a day travel its busiest section from John Nolen Drive to Seminole Highway. That’s about 40,000 more vehicles than two decades ago. And by 2032, the Department of Transportation expects a daily traffic count of more than 145,000 along that stretch.
At the same time, Madison and Dane County are adding about 6,000 residents a year.
What will our city and region do to avoid gridlock?
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has placed a priority on having faster and more efficient buses to attract riders and ease congestion. That’s a promising idea we support, yet it’s only part of the solution. Better roads with more capacity for clean-running cars and trucks are needed, too.
That’s why the DOT wants to add space for more vehicles on the Beltline as soon as 2021 — but not by making the Beltline bigger at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead, the DOT has proposed a clever and relatively inexpensive way to add an extra lane of traffic in both directions, without laying down pavement. The DOT wants to turn the median shoulders of the Beltline into temporary lanes for traffic during peak travel times. Green arrows would light up on signs above the extra lanes during the crush of morning and evening commutes.
The Madison Area Transportation Planning Board should endorse this pragmatic idea next week.
The Beltline backing up if not crawling every day isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s the main reason more than one crash occurs every day on the Beltline. Most accidents are rear-end collisions.
DOT traffic engineers want to slightly narrow the existing three lanes of traffic in each direction so the median shoulders in the middle of the Beltline can become temporary fourth lanes. The engineers predict faster travel times for more cars and fewer accidents. (The outside shoulders would remain for emergencies only.)
Now is the time to move forward because the DOT has other drainage and median work to do anyway.
Configuring and marking the median space as temporary lanes for rush-hour traffic would cost about $15 million, most of it covered by the federal government. Work could begin in 2021. Seventeen other states have adopted similar strategies, according to the DOT.
Critics warn that extra lanes will draw more vehicles to the Beltline. That’s all right, because it would reduce traffic on alternative routes through neighborhoods and Downtown. Critics also worry that fewer people will use public transit. We doubt that, given the mayor’s push for snazzy buses.
The DOT’s smart plan should roll forward.