Complete Streets Canary: 2015 Transportation Planning in La Crosse

This guest blog post was authored by La Crosse area Bike Fed member James Longhurst, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse studying the history of urban and environmental policy.  He is the author of Bike Battles:  A History of Sharing the American Road, out this spring from the University of Washington Press.


This is what a complete street looks like. What’s not to like?


Let’s imagine for a moment the worst-case scenario: The governor’s budget, Senate Bill 21, passes without significant changes, and Wisconsin’s state-level Complete Streets policy is repealed. What would be the impact on the state and its citizens? Where would this policy change be experienced first, and most clearly? I think it might be here, on the western border of the state, where a long and complicated transportation planning process is at a crucial stage. If the state policy is indeed repealed, a complex undertaking in this region would be the next highway construction project on the table. La Crosse might be the Complete Streets canary in the coal mine.

Save the Dates:

  • La Crosse Transportation Vision opening meeting, Myrick Center, 2/23, 7pm
  • DOT CRTS, La Crosse Central High School, 3/11, 5-7 p.m.
  • DOT CRTS, Onalaska Eagle Bluff Elementary, 3/12, 5-7 p.m.
  • Mayor’s Neighborhood Conference: Transportation, Myrick Center, 4/11 8AM-12

The Context of Complete Streets Policies:

What would the future for biking and walking look like without a statewide Complete Streets Ordinance? As of this moment, the text of Senate Bill 21 would repeal Wisconsin’s existing complete streets law, passed in 2009. As the Bike Fed puts it, “the law requires that bicyclists and pedestrians be taken into account whenever a road is built or reconstructed with state or federal funds.” These policies don’t mandate building any pedestrian or bicycle-specific infrastructure; they usually just require that new projects make reasonable accommodations for many different modes of travel. The advocacy group Smart Growth America says that complete streets policies “accommodate all anticipated users, including people walking, bicycling, taking public transportation and driving cars and commercial vehicles.” Along with cutting complete streets and a host of other large-scale policy changes, SB 21 would also eliminate all state support for the Transportation Alternatives Program (cutting about $2 million from state bike programs and construction projects), and essentially zero out the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which finances state trail purchases. If SB 21 became law, there would be no legal requirement for state-controlled construction projects in this region to take walkers and cyclists into account.

Repealing the Wisconsin Complete Streets policy would be somewhat ironic in this corner of the state, since the La Crosse region has recently jumped into national leadership for this sort of planning. The County and City of La Crosse, as well as the City of Onalaska, have passed their own complete streets ordinances in the last several years. Along with a 2011 La Crosse Area Planning Committee (LAPC) resolution, the city and county ordinances were recently named as part of “The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2014” by Smart Growth America. Out of the 712 policies ranked in the most recent version of the report, the 2011 LAPC resolution was ranked 4th among regional agencies. The County’s complete street policy – passed the same year – ranked 6th among comparable laws. La Crosse’s 2011 policy was 25th for Cities, while Onalaska’s 2012 policy was 18th.

While no one knows what might happen in practice if the state eliminates its own requirements, in principle it certainly looks like a step backward for sustainable transportation options in a region that is dedicated to these ideas. But the outcome is particularly important here, because the policy change comes a critical moment in an ongoing saga of transportation planning.

The Project:

After decades of complicated history, including a defeat in a city-wide referendum in 1998, a false start a decade ago, and a spirited discussion before the LAPC in 2014, this year the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has announced a new study to address a long-unsolved problem: finding a way to move people around in the narrowly bounded geography between the Mississippi river and the steep bluffs. Think of it as a rectangle six miles tall and two wide. The bottom boundary is central La Crosse; the top is the bordering community of Onalaska; the left is the river and the right is the bluff. Divide the rectangle diagonally, and the top left triangle is the northern part of the city of La Crosse, while the bottom right is a locally-beloved wetland with nature trails and scenic recreation. Whether on foot or by bike, bus, truck or car; everyone who wants to get into the center of La Crosse needs to go through this area. This is also true of anyone wants to drive through La Crosse and continue south towards Platteville or Dubuque, or west across the river to La Crescent, Minnesota. There are currently three north/south highways cutting through the rectangle, but for decades the state DOT has been concerned that these three routes will eventually not be enough to quickly move the automobile traffic of commuters. Hence, the idea of a major construction project to enhance the north/south corridor, described in state law as covering “USH 53 extending approximately 6.2 miles between I 90 and USH 14/61 near 7th Street.”

But the phrases “highway” and “major construction project” might be misleading here – within city limits, those highways are better known as Copeland, Rose, George, 3rd, 4th and La Crosse streets; West Avenue and Lang Drive. In other words, don’t think access-controlled, elevated roadways: these are surface streets through neighborhoods, wetlands and business districts. Sometimes four lanes across, sometimes two, they border schools, hospitals, parks and homes. Cars and trucks intermix with school buses, pedestrians in crosswalks, cyclists, and public transit. In the best possible world, they would be complete streets.

The 2015 Study:

It is in this complicated rectangle that the DOT is planning for a major highway construction project by conducing a year-long Coulee Region Transportation Study to come up with a preferred option by 2016. The DOT announced their intention to restart the long-stalled project just last year, taking many by surprise. The original project had remained listed in state law for decades, even after planning slowed to a trickle after the 1998 city referendum. (While the project stayed on the books over the years, it still does not have dedicated funding set aside for its estimated $140 million price tag.) Even though state statute seems to require this type of project to be limited to building new road or adding new lanes to existing roads, DOT officials have indicated that many different options are still possible; early descriptions of the study have broadened the area to include WI-16, WI-35, and USH 14 on the Minnesota side of the river along with USH 53. A remarkably broad, early draft of the project goal prefers a solution that “improve vehicular and multi-modal travel and safety in a manner that accommodates economic development, incorporates community plans, contributes positively to the area’s quality of life, and limits adverse environmental and social effects to the extent practical.”

In the transportation planning world, one year is an almost comically short time frame, and indeed the DOT is implementing an accelerated process that is entirely new to the region, and has only been used once before in Wisconsin. Known as a “Planning and Environmental Linkages” process or PEL, it is an attempt to speed up the existing planning process by screening out potentially unsupportable outcomes at an early stage, before they would need to be examined by National Environmental Policy Act requirements for environmental studies.

Here’s where the complete streets issue comes into play. At this point in early 2015, and with such a wide list of goals, no one knows what the study will propose – a new road through the marsh? New lanes added to existing highways? New signaling technology or improved road surfacing? Might the study recommend no new construction, or find that there is no problem to be solved? With such a range of outcomes, and the added complexities of environmental permitting and transportation funding, the possible eventualities range from nothing at all to the largest construction project in the region’s history. This leaves many questions unanswered; but the most fundamental is this: if there is no complete streets policy directing it to do so, will the Department of Transportation take into account the needs of all users in its first major project?

If all eyes will be on what the DOT does in La Crosse, it’s important to note that the region has a clear consensus for transportation projects that support many different ways for its residents to move around. In 2013, elected officials all signed on to LAPC’s “Coulee Vision 2050” goal “to encourage infill development, limit urban sprawl, and increase mobility options for all users across the region.” An overall guiding theme of that document highlights multi-modal transportation systems, and notes that “there is a desire among stakeholders to accommodate future growth through expansion of alternative transportation modes and improvements within existing travel corridors. An interim goal states that “Bike and pedestrian facilities will become ubiquitous” in the region. Supporting “Coulee Vision 2050,” and the nationally-recognized Complete Streets policies described above, are a wide variety of organizations committed to health, outdoor recreation and destination tourism throughout the region.

This regional consensus will become even more clear in the coming weeks and months, since the city of La Crosse is organizing its own Transportation Vision process. Consultant Toole Design Group, a firm with nationally-recognized expertise in complete streets design and bike-ped planning, will use a week-long series of meetings starting February 23rd as a basis for a city transportation vision. In discussions that occurred before SB21 was proposed, the DOT agreed to take the results of that visioning process into account in its own plans.  And on April 11, the La Crosse Mayor’s Neighborhood Conference will focus on transportation, with keynote speaker Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns discussing “Transportation in the Next American City.”

It’s a complicated road that has brought us to this point, with a region committed to Complete Streets policies now working with a state agency that might no longer be bound to take them into account. What would the future of transportation in Wisconsin look like without a state Complete Streets policy? La Crosse might be the first to find out.


About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

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