Alder raises concerns about proposal to open Beltline shoulders during rush hour

A Madison alder is asking whether a plan to open up the shoulders of the Beltline highway during peak travel times will help with long term congestion issues.

“Perhaps during crashes and during construction season, those extra lanes would come in handy, but in terms of rush hour, in the long run I don’t think it’ll solve any problems,” said Alder Patrick Heck.

Heck is a member of the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board, which is holding a public hearing about the proposal at a meeting Wednesday. His concerns stem from a concept known as induced demand or, in his words, “you build it, they will come.”

“Everybody will find out that that lane is available and it will fill up and congestion will return. There will be no real advantage to having tens of millions of dollars into a new lane,” Heck said.

Under the proposal, the shoulder between I-39/90 and Whitney Way would open during peak traffic times and in other emergency events. The lanes that currently exist would shrink from 12 feet to 11 feet, and the shoulder and median barrier wall would be rebuilt. An electric sign would let drivers know whether the shoulder was open.

Heck, who walks, bikes and takes the bus most places, said he understands the need to cut down on congestion. But rather than spend tens of millions on highway construction, he said he believes there are other ways to solve the problem that don’t involve more car usage.

“It points to our needing a real regional transit system — not just bus rapid transit but a full fledged regional transit system that’s funded by all municipalities, includes BRT lines all throughout the city and a much more robust bus system,” Heck said.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has said adding an extra lane would make traffic move more smoothly and cut down on the number of crashes.

Drivers have had some mixed opinions about the plan.

“I think that’s an interesting idea,” said Corey Berebitsky. “In Chicago, they have express lanes, different things that you can just go through to the city if you know you’re going to a certain area.”

Heck said he is inclined to vote no on the proposal, but he believes the plan will pass the transportation board and be added to the 2020-2024 Transportation Improvement Program for the Madison Metropolitan Area & Dane County.

The project would be funded by millions of federal dollars that have already been allocated for the project, so Heck said turning down the money would be difficult for local leaders because the money would go to another municipality for another highway project. Madison area leaders would not be able to redirect the money for another project.

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