BRT Gets Madisoned

Do we really have to be all “Madison” about this, people? 

The city is on the verge of doing something historic. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) will be the biggest improvement in urban mobility in these parts in at least a couple of generations. The high comfort, high frequency, limited-stop system will compete well versus car travel and provide a lot more capacity for movement through the narrow isthmus. 

The initial phase will run from East Towne to West Towne with 30 stops along a 15-mile route. The planning and approvals were done with lightning speed by Madison standards and the funding is already secured. 

But there’s a catch. Of course there is. It wouldn’t be Madison if there wasn’t. To be “Madisoned” is to see a good idea get ground to a pulp in the city’s culture of nitpicking and endless debate. Sure, it’s who we are and it’s even kind of charming, but only to a point. Just as a good snowball fight is fun until somebody loses an eye, being Madisoned is entertaining until a positive development gets crushed under its weight. 

The catch is that a couple of the stops for the BRT would be on upper State Street, where the businesses are worried that they will block out storefronts, eliminate the possibility of sidewalk cafes and just generally be out of scale with the street. 

I thought they made good points and so I’ve been supportive of moving the stops a few hundred feet away to Johnson and Gorham streets. 

Since I wrote that, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has responded to the business concerns with a sleek, much smaller design for the stops. But Downtown Madison Inc. and the Business Improvement District don’t think that goes far enough. They want the stops off the street altogether. 

The city’s new, lighter shelter design for State Street should have ended the controversy. But this is Madison.

The mayor seems dug in on this for reasons that I can’t quite comprehend. She makes an “equity” argument. But I can’t see what difference it makes whether the stops are on State Street itself or just around the corner on the cross streets. Moreover, if the measure of racial equity is how many stops there are on State Street, well then, what about her promise that BRT will reduce the total number of all bus stops on the street from the current 10 down to just those two? Wouldn’t that represent an 80 percent reduction in equity? 

There is also an argument that putting the stops on Gorham and Johnson streets will add a few minutes to the overall time it takes to get across the city and there are some narrow sidewalks (and thus tight space for a platform) on Gorham.

It seems to me like the stop redesign addresses most of the legitimate concerns of the businesses. I would have hoped that they would compromise and commit to making it work. But they are also dug in and so, there ya go. 

In the last analysis, I still don’t think that two stops on a 30-stop, 15-mile route are going to make or break the BRT system. If I were still a pol I might want to stop spending political capital on this and just go with the Johnson and Gorham stops with a promise to revisit the siting after a couple of years. 

Yeah, I think the business owners are being a little unreasonable, but they’ve put up with a lot the last year and a half. Moving the stops a few hundred feet isn’t all that much to ask if it increases their confidence in investing their time and money on the street. 

Welcome to the 156th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

This column originally appeared in Isthmus.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “BRT Gets Madisoned

  1. Dave Cieslewicz, I can see why having these few blocks on State Street is critical to making the routing work. With BRT (as would have been the case if you had gotten light rail built during your administration) having dedicated travel lanes and fewer and softer turns is of critical high value. The inner loop around the Capitol already has a dedicated lane for buses. Then it is a soft right turn going down State Street which will also have no other vehicle traffic on it. Then it is another soft turn on to West Gorham.

    This is the most slippery route through the most congested area of our city. Rerouting to East Johnston and Gorham will add several difficult-to-make right turns without already existing dedicated lanes.

    I have nothing but the highest respect for the merchants on State Street. Several of them are friends. I also feel for them given that they suffered through the past year and a half more than almost anyone else in this city. But I am having a hard time understanding why the benefits of having a successful BRT running down these few blocks on State—which will reduce the actual number of bus trips and bus stops compared to now—is not something they would want to embrace. It seems like a 95% percent glass full choice to me.

    But, as you write, we need to get this project going. We are going to continue to rapidly build dense housing and commercial space though out our central city and surrounding areas. The Isthmus is not going to get any wider. If we don’t get this done now—and we should have gotten it rolling years ago (thanks for trying Dave)—we will be kicking ourselves twenty years from now while we sit in gridlock.


  2. I don’t really have an opinion on this as I’m unlikely to use the system regardless of design. But in your original column, where you noted that there will need to be an alternate route off State Street during various events of the year, resonated with me. If the route can/must be moved to that alternative, and needs to be a significant number of times each year, why not make that the default route? I certainly do not have a broad understanding of the system, the issues, or, as I saw Satya mention in a video comment recently, Federal funding issues. I do think your point is valid.


  3. I’m for foot traffic only on State Street from Friday afternoon until Sunday evening from May through October. All of State. Pedestrian Malls are quite popular around the world. Mayor SRC could encourage a Madison version of a passeggiata, or evening stroll around the square and down State Street. I’m a dreamer, though. Not gonna happen.


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