The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is moving forward with plans to rebuild South Avenue within the existing right-of-way, limiting the amount of real estate that will need to be taken but also precluding any accommodations for cyclists.

The DOT’s favored plan — to be formally introduced at a public meeting Thursday — calls for a four-lane highway with a raised median separating traffic and preventing left turns along most of the one-mile project corridor. Diagonal intersections at West Avenue, 16th Street and Ward Avenue would be replaced with roundabouts, which would require the removal of eight buildings.

South Avenue - Alt. 1

A four-lane divided roadway fits within existing right-of-way with roundabouts at West Avenue, 16th Street and Ward Avenue. There would be no bike accommodations and would require eight displacements. 

The project is slated for construction in 2022 and is expected to cost about $9 million.

Carrying state Hwy. 14, that stretch of road is one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares and a link to downtown and the Gundersen Health campus, yet it cuts diagonally through residential and commercial districts, separating about 24 square blocks along the Mississippi River from the rest of the city.

The primary goal of the project is improved safety, which the DOT says can best be addressed by reducing and protecting left turns. There were 200 crashes within that stretch of road between 2009 and 2013, for a rate above the state average. More than half of those were rear-end collisions.

“It would improve why we’re having accidents,” project development manager Jim Rohe said. “It’s caused by left turners largely. This will provide protection, because we’re eliminating left turns.”

Rohe said the chosen alternative also has the least impact on private property, received the most positive public comments and was recommended by a consulting firm conducting a parallel study for the city of La Crosse. It was also the least expensive alternative.

“It seems like that was the one that rose to the top through that process,” Rohe said.

La Crosse city council President Martin Gaul, who serves on a committee overseeing the city’s study, said he wasn’t surprised by the decision.

“They’ve been aiming at that since we started,” he said.

City leaders and state officials clashed over preliminary designs, which called for widening the road to include a center turn lane, taking out dozens of homes and businesses. The DOT later revised its proposed plans, though differences remained.

Of the four alternative designs presented, only one fit within the existing right-of-way. The three that included bike accommodations — something the city has pushed for — featured a much wider roadway and would have required up to 31 displacements — nearly four times as much private real estate — and cost significantly more.

Unhappy with the initial DOT designs, the city hired Toole Design Group to develop alternative plans for the corridor and surrounding neighborhoods.

Despite concerns about pedestrian safety, lack of bicycle facilities and limited vehicle access, project manager Kevin Luecke said Toole recommends the narrow option, primarily because it has the lowest impact on the neighborhood and tax base.

Toole will continue studying ways to improve bike and pedestrian access along the corridor as well as land use and how to encourage redevelopment of parcels where buildings are removed to make way for the road.

Rohe said the DOT does not support the city’s recommendation to include a fourth roundabout at 14th Street, noting it would require 11 additional displacement and add about $2 million to the total cost. He said proposed traffic calming devices — such as speed tables — would not be considered.

The DOT will now prepare more detailed designs in preparation for an environmental review that is scheduled to be completed next summer.

Gaul said he wishes the DOT had incorporated more of the city’s suggestions.

“I think there’s a long way to go yet,” Gaul said. “There’s some disappointment all around, but the process isn’t over.”

The primary goal of the project is improved safety, which the DOT says can best be addressed by reducing and protecting left turns. There were 200 crashes within that stretch of road between 2009 and 2013, for a rate above the state average. More than half of those were rear-end collisions.
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Rhymes with Lubbock. La Crosse Tribune reporter and data geek. Covers energy, transportation and the environment, among other things. Call him at 608-791-8217.

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