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Roundabouts part of city transportation vision

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Traffic in La Crosse

Nearly a week of workshops to develop a transportation vision for La Crosse wrapped up Thursday in a roundabout manner.

Roundabouts — the circular road configurations that guide vehicles through intersections without the need for signal lights — perhaps were the main suggestion the Toole Design Group offered the city as a way to address some of the traffic problems in La Crosse.

South Avenue is being eyed for widening as a way to ease congestion. But roundabouts at some of the main intersections would keep traffic flow steady and make the street much easier for pedestrians to cross, said Ian Lockwood of Toole Design Group, who helped guide the “charrette” process that included gathering public feedback, stakeholder interviews and an open studio for discussing ideas.

Participants were able Thursday to see some of what Toole Design heard, saw and drew from the sessions.

The central question for the night, as Mayor Tim Kabat saw it: “Where do we go from here?”

Lockwood made a pitch for roundabouts, which have come into use in other communities, including neighboring Onalaska, but have yet to surface here. The first has been proposed, however, at Cass and Seventh street.

The public initially can be wary about the roundabouts, especially if they have little experience with them, Lockwood acknowledged, admitting he had similar doubts when he first heard of the concept.

But roundabouts have proven safer, easier and actually more efficient in keeping traffic flowing despite the slower speeds because there’s no waiting at an intersection for the lights to change. As all turns are right, no turn lanes are needed, freeing road space for other uses like adding bike lanes. Pedestrians can cross more easily.

A roundabout on the Rose and George street intersection could give the city a more attractive entrance. Same for where La Crosse Street crosses Third and Fourth streets that now has little hint of the “fantastic downtown” just beyond, he said.

“I think in the long run, it makes a better city,” Lockwood said.

La Crosse, like many municipalities, must get past the transplanted rural idea that higher speeds and more lanes benefit traffic flow. Usually, it promotes loss to the suburbs and does not preserve the character of neighborhoods and the downtown.

Some of the other ideas offered:

  • Have Pearl Street be not a pedestrian mall as some have suggested — Lockwood does not advocate closing off streets, as that simple limits access for some — but making it “shared space” open for cars, bicycles and pedestrians alike. Motorists, knowing those walking or on bikes have the same rights to access, naturally slow down and pay more attention, so it’s safe, he said. These types of streets are growing in popularity in Europe.
  • Design bike lanes with buffers from traffic, so taking that route doesn’t make average bikers nervous. The prospect of trying to ride on Losey Boulevard intimidated even experienced cyclist Ken Gray of Toole. Putting street parking outside the bike lane, for example, would be a relatively easy fix on some streets. Two-way bike lanes might work better on more narrow roads, since only one side is affected.

The plan and vision outlined Thursday should have some flexibility and continue to evolve, Lockwood said. Yet city leaders must be willing to hold their ground on standards, even if it means letting money or a developer go elsewhere.“You have to be able to say no,” Lockwood said.

City officials will use that advice when the Department of Transportation has public meetings March 11 and 12 in La Crosse and Onalaska on the Coulee Region Transportation Study and whether to reallocate $140 million earmarked for area road work but stalled by debate over a north-south corridor.

“As Ian said, this is really just the beginning,” Mayor Kabat said in encouraging the crowd to “take this energy and ideas and input — we need to roll that right into the DOT process.”

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