Traffic in La Crosse

In 1998, Wisconsin set aside money to build a new road through La Crosse. But nobody wanted it. Fifteen years later, there’s money on the books, the topic remains as sensitive as ever, and Department of Transportation officials are asking if it’s even worth studying.

In 1998, Wisconsin set aside money to build a new road through La Crosse.

But nobody wanted it.

Fifteen years later, there’s money on the books, the topic remains as sensitive as ever, and Department of Transportation officials are asking if it’s even worth studying.

Some argue the need is there, but, with traffic volume essentially static for the past decade and opposition to building a road through the La Crosse River marsh or city neighborhoods still strong, even discussing the issue remains a challenge.

“The department is at a crossroads,” said Joe Olson, southwest region director for the DOT. “We’ve basically been sitting on this corridor since 1998."

Talks of a north-south corridor date back to the 1940s, and there have been eight studies completed over the past four decades.

But there has been little action since 1998, when voters overwhelmingly passed a resolution blocking the DOT’s plan to build a highway connecting Hwy. 157 to La Crosse’s South Side, bisecting the marsh and turning Sixth and Seventh streets into one-way highways.

With an original cost of $80 million, the La Crosse corridor price tag has grown to more than $140 million. Of the 21 enumerated major projects on the books, only four have larger completion costs.

For comparison, the annual highway rehabilitation and resurfacing budget for the entire 19-county southwest district, which includes La Crosse, Madison, Janesville and Beloit, is just $68.5 million.

“I look at it as a very, very big project,” Olson said.

DOT officials indicate that if La Crosse doesn’t want that money, there are other communities that do.

“We need to consider whether or not we take this project off the books,” Olson said. “Is there enough (support) that it makes sense to spend several million dollars on a study, or is that throwing good money after bad?”

In short, it may be time for the region to fish or cut bait.

Looking for support

For many in the area, it’s impossible to disentangle the study from the north-south corridor proposal that was voted down.

“You can’t even really talk about transportation planning because folks move right to the 5B-1,” said La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat. “In some ways that is really holding us back on transportation in the area.”

Thus far, there’s no sign of strong support for the study, which Olson said could take several years and cost millions.

Even the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce, which backed the north-south corridor in 1998, has yet to take a position, though it did host an informational meeting in January.

“Nothing’s been brought to the board of directors,” said Dave Booth, past chairman. “The chamber has not yet taken any action on this issue.”

Local political leaders are cautiously supportive of a study, though neither the city of La Crosse nor the county board has taken up a formal resolution.

The La Crosse Area Planning Committee has sent a letter of support for completing the study, and director Tom Faella said the committee will likely take up a resolution of support at its March meeting.

La Crosse County Board Chairwoman Tara Johnson said the issue will likely come before the board’s executive committee in February. She said she favors moving forward with a study, though she doesn’t have a sense whether the entire board would support it.

Johnson suggested establishing a set of thresholds at which the community could agree there is a need. That could be a certain amount of time to drive from La Crosse to Holmen or an impact to businesses.

“I am of the opinion that studying something is always a good thing,” Johnson said.

No La Crosse mayor since 1997 has supported a north-south corridor, and Kabat said he isn’t about to end that streak.

“I made it pretty clear all through the campaign … I do not support doing any kind of a fourth corridor through the marsh,” he said. “The community has spoken loud and clear. We need to look at other alternatives.”

Kabat said he will recommend the council pass a resolution to move forward on a study, “with the caveat … that a fourth route through the marsh just isn’t going to get support.”

Confronting distrust

Charley Weeth is president of Livable Neighborhoods, the group formed to oppose the north-south corridor in 1998.

“Of course the DOT perceives there is and will be a ‘congestion’ problem with regard to traffic!” he wrote in an email. “And for the average person that has to slow down or even stop a few times on any of the three corridors on a weekday afternoon, there is definitely a congestion problem.”

The real problem, Weeth said, is the DOT’s unattainable standards on urban highways -- and the notion that increased lane capacity will only exacerbate the problem, encouraging more suburban growth.

Olson and others with the DOT acknowledge cynicism about the study.

“We don’t want to come across as forcing anything on people they don’t want,” said Jeff Gust, the DOT’s southwest region planning chief. “But we do see some traffic concerns. We feel they need to be addressed. We want to know if the communities think so.”

Faella said he trusts the DOT is approaching the study with an open mind.

“I don’t believe the DOT is trying to force that project onto the citizens of La Crosse,” he said. “If they were, they would have done it.”

But because of its designation as a major project, there are limitations on how the money can be spent.

Under state law, major projects must meet certain criteria, generally limited to at least 2.5 miles of new highway or five miles of new lanes on an existing highway.

In short, the money must be spent on roads, not public transit. But Olson said transit and transportation alternatives will be a component of the study, if it moves forward.

The DOT must also factor in plans to overhaul Hwy. 16, with the Medary overhead likely to need replacement in the next decade. While the DOT had hoped to have a connection between Hwy. 157 and Gillette Street in place to handle that traffic during the bridge replacement, Olson said it’s likely too late.

The reconstruction could be an opportunity to turn Hwy. 16 into the main north-south corridor.

“When you do reconstruct it, do you go to six lanes?” Faella asks. “The true fact is there’s no easy answer. There’s no real good place to put a new road.”

Do we have a traffic problem?

Ask and you’ll hear that La Crosse has traffic problems, with most complaints targeted at Hwy 16.

Indeed, it’s one of the county’s busiest roads, with two sections exceeding the DOT’s standards for free-flowing traffic.

But the data paint a slightly different picture.

In La Crosse County, the average commute time to work is 17.5 minutes, one of the lowest in the state and in the lowest tenth of the more than 800 U.S. counties where the Census Bureau makes such estimates.

Nearly 65 percent of workers in the two-county La Crosse metropolitan area get to work in less than 20 minutes, according to Census Bureau estimates. That ranks La Crosse well below half of the nation’s metro areas, even those of similar size.

Within the county, commute times vary by the distance from the city of La Crosse, where only a quarter of all workers need more than 20 minutes to get to their jobs. In the city of Onalaska, it’s 35 percent.

But more than three quarters of all workers in the metro area get to and from work in single-occupancy vehicles. Only about 1 percent rely on public transit.

That, Weeth said, is a direct consequence of the abundant free parking in La Crosse, including some 1,500 stalls in downtown ramps built at public expense.

“Until and unless employers and institutions charge fair market rates for off-street parking, and the city of La Crosse establishes a comprehensive parking policy for both on- and off-street parking, so drivers instead of property owners and taxpayers pay for parking, SOVs and the roads and parking lots required to serve them will dominate our community.”

However, DOT planners are focused on potential future problems.

Under the agency’s 2035 traffic projections, many segments of Hwys. 35, 53 and 16 would exceed their level "E" capacity, meaning significant delays for motorists.

At the worst intersections -- Rose and George streets, La Crosse and Losey -- drivers could be waiting six to eight minutes, through several traffic signal cycles.

Diminishing expectations

Yet traffic projections nationwide have lately come under scrutiny as actual vehicle miles traveled have declined for eight straight years.

Indeed, the north-south corridor was proposed in large part to meet anticipated growth that has failed to materialize.

In the 1991 study done leading up to the proposal, 20-year traffic projections for Copeland Avenue, Lang Drive and Hwy. 16 were anywhere from 8.6 to 39 percent higher than the actual volumes recorded in 2012.

“A lot of traffic studies and projections are fairly flawed now because they used flawed assumptions,” said Eric Sundquist, managing director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative, a Madison-based think tank promoting environmentally sustainable and economically equitable transportation policy.

The reasons for the decline aren’t entirely clear, though economic downturn, gas prices and changing tastes could have something to do with it. The U.S. has also reached a saturation point or sorts, Sundquist said. In the 1970s and '80s, women were joining the workforce, families were buying more cars and moving out of urban centers. Those trends have reached a plateau.

“You can’t spend an unlimited amount of time behind the wheel,” he said.

But Sundquist acknowledges that national trends can’t be applied to every situation. Development, population growth and commuting patterns all can affect traffic levels.

Nearly all of the county’s population growth during the past quarter century -- some 16,500 people -- has been in the northern suburbs. The village of Holmen has nearly tripled in size, while Onalaska has grown by 40 percent. Population growth over the next two decades will likely be concentrated there as well.

Still, those who remember the fight of 1998 say it might be time to move on.

“In my opinion, the money can be better spent elsewhere,” said UW-La Crosse history professor Chuck Lee, a founding member of the La Crosse River Marsh Coalition, an informal group that emerged from the early corridor planning stages.

Lee notes the city has four north-south routes within just a couple of miles.

“That’s quite a few lanes of traffic,” he said. “I think people are pretty good at finding their way home and back.”

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(48) comments


This issue isn't about thinking "outside the box". It's about common sense and the responsible use of tax payers money. Another road through the marsh is not needed and nobody has demonstrated otherwise.


(continued) This (north-north?) marsh corridor proposal seems to be missing a crucial but simple traffic management strategy that will provide incentive to reduce excess vehicle traffic growth long term, where a majority of environmental- & civic- minded groups will come to see it as benefit, where folks can perhaps gain viewing access to the marsh.

If current standards are truly preventing a project from moving forward, then why hasn’t the City & DOT-LaX applied for deviation from those standards? Seems it’s time for LaX area residents to help the City officials & DOT-LaX to put pressure on DOT -Madison Central Office & -Feds who seem to be sitting on their hands. The LaX metro is not a standard area to build; this is not a standard project.

Calm your fears. Look at a marsh project with open minds and how it might benefit you as similar projects in other states have benefitted all, not just drivers.


Trib, good reporting; but, average daily traffic (ADT) counts paint but a small fraction of the overall traffic demand/supply & decision-making. ADTs are up to 10% erroneous depending on methods, conditions, factors to obtain or ‘formulate’. 10% can be the difference in decision-making.

I don’t buy into the idea that telecommuting will decrease or flatline the total transport of people, goods and services over the next 2 project life cycles. We are creatures of movement. Multimodal solutions support this notion that people want to get around. Conflicts and roads should not be the reason that restricts their movement. What’s important, though, is ‘when’ people decide to move, as much as they wish to.


If you live outside LaCrosse and work in our city, isn't it your tough luck traffic doesn't move any faster? Most the people who live in the city aren't complaining about getting around town.

RINO Cowboy

Fewer cars on the road would be a solution.


A well written, factual article. Thanks.


Not sure why you all want to spend a ton of money and make it easier for undesirables to access the southside....kind of like the fact that it's a pain in the rear and keeps drifters out.


Chris Hubbuch did an excellent job on this article. This is the kind of reporting a local newspaper should be doing, letting us know what is going on and what's in the works.
He should get some kind of award for this story.


I agree maki....a well written and thorough news article. Very refreshing to see.


Bridge over. Tunnel under. Or combination of same. Add a monorail. Great idea!!! Don't wreck the swamp. Other cities have managed this issue and figured it out. I trust La Crosse can too. We need to be creative.

First base

With the "parking problem" in the downtown area, why do we not look at something different to move people through the cities? A north south monorail system from northern Lax County to south Lacrosse with feeders by bus to the system. With minimal stops. We always seem to look at the same old ways to fix our problems. Just pour more concrete and asphalt.


“… projections are fairly flawed now because they used flawed assumptions,” said … managing director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative, a Madison-based think tank promoting environmentally sustainable and economically equitable transportation policy.” dubious

There were some pretty dubious (and just dead awful methods of) traffic forecasting going on by both public agencies and large private companies in the 80s and roaring 90s. So now traffic forecasting, not design or construction, is the single most important component. For that reason, the ‘results’ of forecasting are ever more politically/money influenced by construction companies & developers.

And we’ve yet to realize the absurdity in obtaining ‘accurate’ forecasts 20-years out- no matter what the current trends- even since solutions have evolved to more than just dirt and pavement.


“… more than three quarters of all workers in the metro area get to and from work in single-occupancy vehicles.”

It’s not question of how many x-occupancy vehicles are served in the entire metro, it’s a question of how many x-occupancy vehicles are served by an ‘additional corridor’ in a ‘specific location’. (this question, among others). Higher-income families living in suburban populations have more kids, therefore trip-chain more from the same vehicle- higher proportions of multiple-occupancy trips. I feel there is some short-sightedness in DOT having been mislead by their own data.

Even so, >20% of multiple-occupancy vehicles means something. 'A' marsh project needs to be revisited on this premise, one that is from outside-the-box thinking.


Once at a congestion state, any added (future) traffic will double, triple, quadruple problems of congestion: i.e. it takes that much longer to dissipate traffic from the longer traffic queues. Existing congested states are ‘huge’ deals in planning future growth, albeit not the x-factor.

But also in congested states, drivers learn quickly not to drive when not necessary. If you build a by-pass, unfortunately, that notion quickly reverts back to old habit. Studies/psychology tells us some will drive ‘only’ because of spare capacity within the system. We need to avoid ‘excess’ spare capacity that a freeway by-pass would bring: Eau Claire was imprudent to build the behemoth that they did.


At a time where more and more people are moving towards alternatives to cars it would be a foolish waste of money to build more roads. Fewer people are relying on their cars to get around and people are more interested in alternatives to cars rather than car ownership. If they are determined to spend the money on transportation it would be best spent on those alternatives.

Major Dogg

Who exactly is moving to alternatives to cars? Car ownership per capita has never been higher in the US and in the world.

Deadwood subscriber

I am.

David Jarzemski

I was leaning toward that new/old road idea, North to South through the marsh, BUT this article convinced me it is not needed. If folks who live north of La Crosse and work in La Crosse want a shorter commute, then I suggest they move back to La X.

Major Dogg

I'm afraid all you are going to get with this attitude is businesses moving their opportunities OUT of the city. Onalaska, West Salem, Holmen will all look better on paper to businesses that actually are affected by market forces.

David Jarzemski

Major Dogg, the vast majority of job seekers still live in La Crosse and will continue to do so for decades to come. In fact, all colleges in the area are located in La Crosse where most of the new employees will come from.


If you really want to see something disturbing, check out the condition of hwy 16 that has been fixed already. Less than a year after being repaired the blacktop is cracking all over the place. This is costing tax payers big time with no end in sight. They constantly patch the cracks in the concrete with blacktop that lasts about two weeks. They need to come up with something better soon.


This area could really benefit from driver's education, ending cell phone use while driving, and driving with some consideration for others. Like actually moving when the light turns green.


The solution needs to be comprehensive. Cell phones are a huge deal. At stoplights, they can be the difference of a quarter-mile backup of vehicles and not; all it takes is a 1 second start-up delay every other stoplight cycle.


“… more than three quarters of all workers in the metro area get to and from work in single-occupancy vehicles.”

It’s not question of how many x-occupancy vehicles are served in the entire metro, it’s a question of how many x-occupancy vehicles are served by an ‘additional corridor’ in a ‘specific location’. (this question, among others). Higher-income families living in suburban populations have more kids, therefore trip-chain more from the same vehicle- higher proportions of multiple-occupancy trips. I feel there is some short-sightedness in DOT having been mislead by their own data.

Even so, >20% of multiple-occupancy vehicles means something. The marsh project needs to be revisited on this premise.


sorry Jobaba, this last comment not intended for you. Will repost.


There's a site bug that will put your comment in the wrong place under certain circumstances.. it's possible that may be the cause. The workaround is to reload the page after every reply you've posted.


Thanks Napoleon. Good to know.


That cat just won't stay away, will it? We dropped it off in Madison in 1998, and now it's found its way back to La Crosse.


It is ironic that the people who moved out of La Crosse because of high taxes yet want to work in La Crosse and use La Crosse services now want La Crosse to put up a highway through the marsh to accommodate their commute.

Don't worry, the high prices at Gundersen are driving more businesses and people OUT of La Crosse. The minor traffic problem will cure itself in time.

Mr Bluejeans

The graphs would suggest the population has grown, not declined. The actutual amount of traffic (compared to projected numbers) is 0.53% in 2013 c/w 2003. That graph showed a steady INCREASE in population over the same time period. BTW, the map showed a 45% INCREASE on West ave and 4.7% INCREASE on South ave. I guess that increase is due to moving vans facilitating those disgruntled businesses and people trying to get away from Gundersen, huh? The local alternative, St Mayo doesnt provide health care anymore, or just not in La Crosse? Higaway 53 had a 10% increase in traffic but I90/Hwy 16 only 0.56% so obviously all the priced-out-of-Gundersen businesses are going (slowly, very slowly) to Onalaska or Holmen. Funny thing is that you would never know it driving in those towns. The point of the article is that overall traffic really hasent been consistent with projections - except in specific areas. Like around Gundersen. lol


Good point. The cost of doing business due to higher (they are high everywhere) property taxes, over-regulation (garbage pick up, parking fees) and high health care costs are a real problem for current and prospective employers.


Living in the burbs and having driven to work in the central city area I don't think a 20 min commute is bad. Most people in urban areas would kill for that. I agree the major bottlenecks are listed while the worst only got lightly mentioned. That is the area from Gillete St north to the last stoplight before I-90. That could have been taken care years ago if Ona hadn't blocked the expanding of the freeway south to hook up with Hwy 16. I seem to remember that several years ago the Ona council voted it down because Dave Skogen didn't want to end access to his super market. So we all get to pay for that. The Rose/George St will be fixed when they redo the entire area. LaCrosse St/Losey still needs some work and maybe any study needs to address that instead of the misguided view of funneling everything downtown, which doesn't need it as it is not the retail center any longer.


The real questions is how much congestion people in La Crosse will tolerate? Are we willing to wait 2-3 green lights to make it through some of the city's major intersections? Are people/businesses on Losey, West Ave/Lang/George, and Rose/Copeland/South Ave/Mormon Coulee willing to accept the fact that over the next 20 years DOT is going to look to make improvements on these roads versus a new road? That means the potential for business access changes, potential for widening, turn lane additions, etc. These are all things that need to be weighed out in this debate.

As for transit options, besides having some express buses from park and ride lots, there are not really any other cost effective measures that would make sense. It would be even questionable how many would actually use an express bus service with so many people having staggered work hours, kids, etc most people would rather sit in traffic as their car is more convenient than a bus.

Tim Russell

It's really a question of how much this congestion costs people in La Crosse. Insurance Rates for the area are based on actual Property Damage & Personal Injury Costs. As the congestion increase so will these costs. Inaction is actually a hidden tax increase.


The planners already have come to a quick conclusion that the growth over the next 20 years will be in Onalaska, Holmen, and West Salem which most would agree is true. What trends keep pointing towards most likely more jobs and businesses in the future will be located in these areas versus being in La Crosse. In many of the US's cities today, the most prominent commute is suburb to suburb, not suburb to central city.

Companies tend to locate to where their workers live and those that require good transportation options to run their businesses will find these outlying communities more desirable especially since they have prime access to I90/US53. This will become more true as commute times get worse into La Crosse.

dickey roberts

Why not make Losey Blvd. a six lane with no stops along the way. Put ramps at Main, Jackson and South Avenue. Problem solved in the city. Why would the corridor need to go past Gunderson Lutheran, just creating more congestion? Where are the service roads in the mall area? Stop signs and stop lights do not move traffic!


Then put the money toward a four lane hwy. 16 between West Salem and Onalaska with safe turn off lanes. The traffic is very unsafe with a lot of road rage as it currently exists.

Bill Payer

I believe that's already in the DOT plan for 2016 or something like that.

Builder Bill

I know the citizens voted not to have a new highway through the town/marsh. But wouldn't a "loop" from the mall area down past 33 to to Hwy 14 on the south side be welcomed? Anything to avoid having to ride all the way through town on Losey or through downtown.

David Lee

There is an easy solution that I suggested to our past mayor and the dot. Reopen the roads to the east that were abandoned in the 40's, and build a bypass to the interstate east of the city. They can easily connect from Stoddard, and by building an bypass similar to what they did in Eauclaire they would eliminate the congestion in lacrosse, and open a lot of areas for expansion. After all, the surrounding areas are dependent on lacrosse for medical and jobs, why not open the area for expansion and be done with it. If you would actually google the areas west with a google earth app, you will see that there are several existing roads already that could be connected and then connect to the interstate. It would be a simple win win solution for everyone in the area. But then again, that would be to simple.


Still another example of the incompetents we have in government!
What part of the referendum a few years back don’t these morons understand?
The people, the taxpayers, the people paying these incompetents wages voted a few years ago that we didn’t want the north-south corridor, leave it alone, it’s dead!!!
These idiots in city hall have an obsession on spending our money, they see the word grant and think it’s free money, it’s not free money, it didn’t grow on a tree, it’s still tax-payers money only on a state or federal level! Read that part again, it’s not free money; it didn’t grow on a tree, its still tax-payers money only on a state or federal level! I wonder if the rocket scientist at city hall and the clowncel gets it, it’s not free money; it didn’t grow on a tree, it’s still tax-payers money only on a state or federal level!!! We need to fire each and every one of these spend happy fools that spend even one dime of our money on this project that the voters said we did not want, case closed!!!!
If the incompetents would synchronize the traffic lights and install the trip loops properly traffic could move so much smoother, just look at the lights at 7th and Jackson, west bound traffic on Jackson making a left turn onto 7th trips the loop and turns the lights red on Jackson for no reason, no traffic on 7th but all the cars on Jackson come to a stop!! Maybe this is just being done on purpose to help create a traffic problem so city hall can say we have a traffic problem and get their way with this north south thing!!
How about all the bus stops that are placed on the trip loops so as the bus loads or unloads it trips the signals in their direction with the signal thinking there is traffic on the cross street but its nothing more than a bus sitting on the loop!!!
There’s many lights in town that are set up that if there’s a car turning left in one direction both left turn arrows activate even though there’s no traffic turning left in the other direction!!
This is nothing but incompetency and laziness on city halls part; we all need to start calling the street dept and the mayor any time we’re sitting at a light when there’s no reason for it to be red to report a malfunctioning traffic light!!!!

Builder Bill

Also I would add, bump the speed limits up on Losey and West Ave 5 mph.

Who should be replaced with folks that know how to program traffic lights better? I'd hate to see government grow over it, but would love to see your ideas implemented.

David Lee

The traffic lights are synchronized. The problem is that every time an emergency vehicle travels and uses their signal control, they all have to be re-synchronized, and that takes time. As for the rest of your comments, read them again. they can't build a traffic system to satisfy just you. Now go back to sleep greg, your rant is over.


Let's go back to cow-paths and oxen. (Kidding). This is not a reasonable or responsible approach to dealing with access. For La Crosse to stay relevant, which is very important, we need to have an efficient way for getting people into our city.

Deadwood subscriber

You mean like light rail?


Again with the name-calling? Conversations are not started with calling people morons, incompetents, and lazy. I have never found this helpful.


We live in a new era: the advent of Amazon.com and powerful telecommuting options means less need to hop in your car for what you need and for your work. Your smart phone is your office now: maybe you work as you fish off the deck of your bass boat? The need to pour in like lemmings to an antiquated La Crosse downtown is no more: traffic patterns have changed.. folks drive to Valley View or to Mormon Coulee Road these days. It's not 1974, it's 2014!

Other cities are stuck with the same tired old paradigms that our state DOT wants for us: Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee,.. lots of neighborhoods blighted by 1950s mega-freeways and scads of crime-ridden apartment complexes. Let's not fall into the same trap just because we're too mentally lazy to come up with something better.


You're right, Nap. I do all my work 24/7 for an international company. I do not need to leave my house to get work accomplished. Most of my necessities are ordered from Amazon. But the folks who deliver from Amazon would gain inefficiencies from having better egress and ingress. We need to leave the 'cow-town' perception behind for visitors, residents, and commercial providers.

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