More than 20 years ago, there was a proposal to build a new highway connecting downtown La Crosse with Interstate 90 and the northern suburbs. City residents wanted nothing to do with the “north-south corridor,” as it would degrade urban livability and encroach on a beloved and ecologically important marsh.
So, in a 1998 referendum, La Crosse rejected the road by a 2-1 margin.
I remember Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials presenting traffic studies predicting horrible gridlock in 20 years unless we built a road. But here we are, 20 years later, and Traffic Armageddon has failed to materialize.
Now the DOT has returned with a series of new proposals, insisting that we will suffer horrible gridlock 20 years from now if we don’t “increase the capacity” of our local roads.
There is no reason to believe the DOT’s ominous predictions are any more accurate today than they were 20 years ago, and for La Crosse to allow North-South Corridor 2.0 to be built would be a horrible mistake.
Since I came of driving age in the 1970s, commuting has become increasingly unpleasant and expensive due to traffic, crashes, break-downs and erratic fuel prices. The millennial generation watched us struggle with this as they grew up. Now that they are of driving age, they are inventing new ways to avoid driving.
We’re told that it will be at least 20 years before any form of North-South Corridor 2.0 is complete. That means the DOT is proposing more roads for a generation that rejects driving. Millennials would rather read, text, talk on the phone, nap or daydream while someone else drives.
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There are sensible people of all ages in the La Crosse region who feel this way. We want pleasant walkable neighborhoods, bikeable roads and convenient public transit. We want the ability to conduct our day-to-day lives free of the burden of car ownership and dependency.
When my wife and I took our first train trip, we arrived at Chicago’s Union Station late in the afternoon. As we pulled in, we passed train after train waiting to leave. These were long double-decker commuter trains packed to capacity.
Seeing the sheer number of commuters, we were struck by the thought of how miserable and gridlocked Chicago would be if they were each driving a car. Instead, plentiful and convenient public transit allows Chicago to be the vibrant business hub and cultural center we celebrate today.
No city becomes a great city by laying more pavement and pumping more cars into it. At some point, too much traffic and concrete degrades and destroys the qualities that attracted people to that city in the first place, and decline quickly follows.
La Crosse is at that turning point. We have reached the limit to the traffic this city can tolerate without destroying its identity and desirability. To grow, we must find a better way to move people and freight while shrinking our environmental footprint.
At one meeting, a DOT representative admitted that — for various environmental reasons — we need to drastically reduce the number of cars on the road. Yet he failed to see the disconnect in the policy of increasing road capacity. He talked about providing what people want, while simultaneously saying that people will adapt to whatever is provided.
If that’s the case, then why not provide a 21st century transportation system and let people adapt to it, rather than double-down on an outmoded and destructive system that people supposedly want?
As driving becomes more expensive and less convenient, people will look for a cheaper and more convenient alternative. Where public transit is frequent and reliable, it becomes more convenient than driving and people use it.
With some creativity and imagination, we can build a low-impact transportation system that is inexpensive and convenient. This will enable La Crosse to grow and thrive without destroying everything we love about it. And our system can be a model for La Crosse to lead its peers into the 21st century.