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Corridor foes urge city planners to stand firm

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Marsh

Opponents of a road through the La Crosse River marsh fear that a study by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation would inevitably lead to a recommendation that a new transportation corridor be built through the wetlands, an option already soundly defeated in a city referendum.

A coalition of groups opposed to a north-south corridor are calling on the La Crosse Area Planning Committee to reject a proposed modification to its resolution in support of a regional transportation study.

In the balance is nearly $138 million in state money that opponents fear is earmarked for a highway through the La Crosse River marsh that city residents already have rejected. The Department of Transportation has threatened to yank the funding if it doesn’t get unqualified support from local government.

The La Crosse Area Planning Commission in March approved a resolution supporting completion of the Coulee Connections study — originally commissioned in 2006 — with the caveat that the group “highly values the La Crosse River marsh and existing city neighborhoods” and recommending emphasis be given to improving existing roadways and other transportation alternatives.

The La Crosse city council adopted a resolution calling for a study with a focus on existing roadways, transit services, and expanded bike and pedestrian facilities.

In September, state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb indicated he would recommend cancellation of the Coulee Connections study because of a lack of local consensus, citing the city’s recommendation of “alternatives for the corridor that are not consistent with the department’s identified purpose and need for the project.”

The LAPC is scheduled to consider a revised resolution Wednesday that emphasizes recognition of current deficiencies and drops language about protecting the marsh and city neighborhoods.

The group Livable Neighborhoods issued a letter Monday calling on the LAPC to reject the new resolution and stand by the resolution approved March 19 that recognizes 5B-1 as an untenable solution.

Other nonprofit organizations, including the Friends of the La Crosse River Marsh and the Coulee Region Sierra Club, oppose the new resolution, favoring a study that would look at transportation alternatives.

“We do need to address, responsibly, transportation issues,” said Friends of the Marsh president Chuck Lee. “We do not think the marsh is the default location for such improvements.”

A little history helps to understand the issue.

In the 1990s, the DOT recommended building a new road between Hwy. 157 and La Crosse’s South Side, bisecting the marsh, cutting through the Indian Hill neighborhood and turning Sixth and Seventh streets into one-way highways. That proposal — formally known as Alternative 5B-1 — prompted public outcry and a 1998 citywide referendum in which 63 percent of voters said no to the road.

The project remains on the state’s list of “major projects,” and transportation officials have recently indicated the funds could be used elsewhere if there is no local support.

Livable Neighborhoods President Charley Weeth says the new LAPC resolution, by recognizing the need for “the USH 53 La Crosse Corridor project” listed in state statutes, in effect supports option 5B-1.

“What’s being talked about?” Weeth said. “Our fear is it’s alternative 5B-1.”

But LAPC director Tom Faella said that’s not what’s written in the resolution — nor its intent.

“Everybody knows there’s no future for 5B-1,” he said. “The DOT knows that it’s a nonstarter. We’re trying to come up with something better. You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

State transportation officials say there are no foregone conclusions to the study. But statutes restrict “major project” funding to projects that include at least 2½ miles of new roadway or 5 miles of new lanes to an existing road.

Critics question whether an agency that only builds roads would give serious consideration to mass transit or other alternatives.

Livable Neighborhoods is also asking lawmakers to modify state statutes to allow the DOT more flexibility in using federal funds.

“That state statute in particular locks us in to either a new road or no road,” Weeth said.

Livable Neighborhood also asks the LAPC to re-initiate the original Coulee Connections study that was begun in 2007 but never completed.

Faella said that and the current study under discussion are one in the same.

Weeth contends that while both have the same name, the scope of the latest one has not been defined.

“The devil is in the details,” he said. “What specifically do you mean? … One of the problems is folks here will assume one thing. Folks in Madison will assume another.”

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