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WisDOT rules out no-pave option for La Crosse transportation study

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Lang Drive

With one north-south artery, Lang Drive, running through the La Crosse River marsh — and an electorate that soundly rejected a proposed second road through the marsh — La Crosse officials were reluctant to sign on to a study by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Four of the DOT’s proposed solutions to traffic problems include some sort of marsh road to supplement the city’s three main north-south roads: Lang Drive, Hwy. 16 and Rose Street.

State transportation officials say La Crosse’s future transportation needs cannot be met without new pavement but insist they will seek to avoid damaging neighborhoods and environmentally sensitive lands before moving ahead with any new highways.

In a letter to the regional planning authority, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation says it will not consider a no-new-roads alternative as the agency launches an in-depth study of potential solutions that emerged from a year-long planning process.

The letter is in response to the La Crosse Area Planning Committee’s March resolution that lent support to the study but encouraged the department to consider pavement alternatives such as such as better traffic management, flexible work schedules, commuting options and bike and pedestrian facilities.

The DOT says those alternatives are included in each of the six strategy packages it identified for further study but on their own will not solve the anticipated problems.

Last year, in a planning process that included dozens of meetings attended by more than 2,000 people, the DOT identified six alternatives meant to improve safety and relieve congestion on the area’s three north-south corridors. All include significant new pavement, which has drawn stiff opposition from neighborhood organizations and environmental groups, including those who spearheaded a 1998 referendum that scuttled previous efforts to build a road through the La Crosse River marsh.

The next step would normally be a two- to three-year environmental review of the costs and benefits of each alternative, but DOT regional planning chief Steve Flottmeyer said the agency is considering whether to extend the Planning and Environmental Linkages — or PEL — process to further winnow the alternatives.

In its March resolution supporting the study, the LAPC also urged the DOT to consider local transportation plans, which favor preservation of existing roads, and the high value placed on the marsh and city neighborhoods.

Those concerns are “directly in line with WisDOT environmental processes,” the DOT letter states. “It is WisDOT’s normal course of action to first avoid, then minimize and lastly mitigate any effects a transportation project may have on highly valued environmentally sensitive items…”

Each of the strategy packages includes non-pavement alternatives, but with their estimated impact of a 4 percent decrease in motorist use of existing roads, the DOT says they need to be paired with other approaches.

But there may also be legal reasons for including new pavement.

The study is the department’s latest effort to complete a project that began in the 1990s but was shelved after voters rejected it. Known then as “5B-1,” that now $140 million project remains on the Legislature’s list of approved “major projects.” By law, major projects must include at least 2.5 miles of new roadway or 5 miles of additional lanes.

Flottmeyer said that was not the driving factor for eliminating the non-pavement strategy package.

“We’re just looking for what is the best idea,” he said.

The DOT also notes many of those approaches are out of its domain.

Technological, social and policy-based strategies “depend heavily on local, collaborative efforts to be successful, and WisDOT may have a limited role in achieving the desired outcomes from those strategies.”

“It’s certainly something they can be looking at right now,” Flottmeyer said.

La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat said he believes the alternative solutions would have a greater impact based on existing commuting patterns if the state will make the investments.

“From our standpoint we’d love to invest millions of dollars more into all these facilities, but we don’t have that,” he said. “If the ultimate outcome is the dollars can only be spent on the road and they’re not going to be spending any funding on any other pieces, that remains a concern.”

“We’d love to invest millions of dollars more into all these facilities, but we don’t have that.” Mayor Tim Kabat

"We’d love to invest millions of dollars more into all these facilities, but we don’t have that.”

Mayor Tim Kabat

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