With construction already behind schedule, a group of French Island residents wants to block a decade-old plan to reconfigure lanes on Clinton Street to make it safer for kids to bike to and from school.
More than 100 people packed the Black River Beach neighborhood center Monday night where city and county officials faced boos and scoffs as they outlined the history and details of the plan, which calls for reducing a ¾-mile stretch between Bainbridge and Caledonia streets from four lanes to three, with dedicated bike lanes in either direction and a center turn lane.
A joint venture of La Crosse County and the city of La Crosse, the $81,000 federally-funded project was developed through the county’s Health Department’s Safe Routes to School program, which seeks to address growing rates of obesity and diabetes by making it safer for children to walk or bike to and from school.
“When you make an environment easier to navigate, healthy behaviors follow,” said Paula Silha, the county’s manager of health education.
With a sidewalk on only one side, Clinton Street is the only route for non-motorized vehicles to get on and off the island, which is home to about 4,300 people. It is currently four lanes, which La Crosse city engineer for traffic Matt Gallager called “a very outdated idea.”
Residents voiced fears they will have trouble making left turns from Nakomis Street, that they will face traffic jams and that bike lanes are unsafe for children.
“I would never in a million years let my kids be on the street,” said Maureen McCoy, a teacher who lives on Nakomis. “Children should not be on the road with cars.”
With fishing tournaments “practically every weekend,” Nakomis resident Dennis Dorman said the project engineers underestimated traffic and warned of unintended consequences, which he predicted will include more crashes.
La Crosse City Council Member Andrea Richmond, whose district includes that part of Clinton Street, said she organized the meeting after receiving multiple phone calls and emails since construction signs and barricades went up earlier this summer.
Richmond said that while she voted for the plan she “didn’t know there were bike lanes.”
The design — sometimes referred to as a “road diet” — doesn’t involve any changes to the pavement, just lane markings.
Used on four-lane roads with moderate traffic volumes, road diets reduce vehicle conflicts, which in turn reduces the number and severity of crashes, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found conversion from four to three lanes reduced crashes by more than 40 percent on roads with fewer than 17,500 vehicles per day.
Between 2005 and 2014, traffic flows on Clinton Street dropped by about 14 percent to about 9,700 vehicles per day — less than half the traffic on Rose Street, according to the DOT.
Similar three-lane designs have been used on Monitor Street and state Hwy. 33, which carries up to 9,200 vehicles per day.
First identified in 2007 as a route to and from Logan middle and high schools, Clinton Street was slated for re-painting in 2016, but the project was held over until this year when no contractors bid on it.
According to county records, 15 people attended a public information meeting in January of 2016, including the project manager, two city engineering department workers and the county’s Safe Routes To School coordinator. There was one comment submitted, in favor of the project.
As required by law, notices were mailed to property owners along the route, but not to all resident of the island.
Earlier this summer the contractor, Century Fence, put out signs and barrels, but vehicle detection cameras for the signals at Rose Street were on backorder, which again delayed construction. Work was again scheduled to begin Monday but was pushed back to Sept. 14 because construction at Exit 3 on Interstate 90 was expected to result in some additional traffic on Clinton, said La Crosse County Highway Commissioner Ron Chamberlain.
When asked if the project would be changed based on input from the meeting, Chamberlain said, “Not at this time.”
“Then it’s a dictatorship!” someone yelled.
Asked if the project could be scrapped by the city or county board, Gallager noted that would leave local government on the hook for the costs.
“I will find out if we can make some changes,” Richmond said.