(disclaimer: this is a personal blog and not an official position of Madison Bikes)
Last fall, Bicyclist Thomas Heninger was killed as he crossed John Nolen Drive by a distracted driver racing 60+ mph to beat a red light. His death is an exclamation mark on just how dangerous the grade crossings are at North Shore Dr and Broom St. That’s something we bicyclists know all about.
Danger aside, almost more impactful are the daily inconveniences of the grade crossings: tight staging areas, multiple “refuge” islands, lengthy wait times, slip lanes, complex & confusing signaling, uneven railroad tracks, and, of course, the noise and smell of 50,000 daily cars and trucks. To many, the North Shore Dr and Broom St crossings are an ordeal best avoided.
It is time to build an underpass so that bikers and pedestrians can have safe and unimpeded movement between the Lake Monona waterfront and the City’s interior.
An underpass is not a new idea, but it is a challenging one.
- The City’s John Nolen Drive (JND) Reconstruction project is in full swing, and the concrete poured will shape the causeway and southern Law Park for 30+ years. When City engineers brought up various crossing ideas at a recent public information meeting, the underpass concept received, by far, the most support. If this project moves forward without an underpass, it will be nearly impossible to add one later for reasons explained below.
- The City itself recommended an underpass as a long-term solution in 2017’s Blair/John Nolen Drive Corridor Study
- Engineer Ron Shutvet independently researched the technical feasibility of two underpass concepts in the Dane County Master Plan Collaborative 2011 & 2017. His designs are practical and innovative.
- In the Lake Monona Waterfront Design Challenge, two of the three designs called for underpasses in this area. One called it a top priority. With the next steps of the Challenge, Madison’s JND project engineers will have access to technical and aesthetic expertise of a world-class urban design firm to build an underpass that Madison can be proud of.
- The City’s long-discussed plan for two-way cycletrack along Wilson Street is now kicking off. That new path will provide the gentlest climb from the lakefront up to Monona Terrace and the Capitol Square. This new path needs a low-stress connection to the path along John Nolen Drive.
What are the Obstacles?
- Water. A tunnel under today’s John Nolen Drive would be 3.5′ below current lake level and 6′ below the high water of 2018. I’m told it is still possible, but only with careful engineering and costly pumps.
The workaround is to raise the streets! The City’s 2017 JND/Blair corridor study did just that, raising JND by the bare minimum of 2′. Ron Shutvet’s concepts went farther, raising the streets 6-7′, raising the railroad 4′, and also realigning the tracks. These are not far-fetched ideas. Every part of Law Park’s surface is man-made and both the road and the railroad tracks have changed many times over the last century. There’s no reason we can’t do it again to create a better, safer, and friendlier waterfront.
- Multiple jurisdictions. Possibly the biggest obstacle is that a tunnel would involve State DOT highway, State DOT Railroad, and the State DNR. To City engineers, such multi-jurisdictional projects are hassles, adding meetings and extending timelines by months or years.
That’s a poor excuse not to get this done! The City works with the State all the time on Hwy 151 and beltline projects. Passenger rail will require Federal coordination. Just a few years ago, County, State, and Federal agencies successfully worked together to realign the Canadian Pacific railroad tracks near the airport. When the need is there — and the underpass is a top need — multiple jurisdictions can work together to get the job done.
- Money. An underpass will cost several million dollars, and it is not currently funded. Thanks to the $15M Federal grant secured last month for the John Nolen Drive project, the City now has much more freedom to explore underpass concepts.
Overall, the underpass cost is also low compared to the value it brings to the City, the Bassett Neighborhood, non-motorized transport, and recreation opportunities. It would immediately become the main way to reach the lakefront from campus or anywhere south or west of the Capitol, shaving minutes off every bike/ped journey. It would also achieve many of the lofty goals of the Lake Monona Waterfront Design Challenge at a fraction of the price.
- Time. The City hopes to have a final JND causeway design in 2024 and do construction in 2026. An underpass would likely delay that schedule. I feel it’s worth it. As mentioned earlier, if reconstruction proceeds without an underpass, it’s almost certain that none will ever be built.
Does an Underpass Have Other Benefits?
- Street-level crossings would still be needed but could be engineered to a more car-friendly standard, meaning less delay to drivers, less idling, better air quality, and less acceleration & braking noise.
- One of Ron Shutvet’s options includes stormwater filtration. All three Lake Monona Waterfront Design Challenge firms also included stormwater management to reduce the amount of pollution reaching Lake Monona.
- One of Ron Shutvet’s options also realigns the railroad tracks so that Broom St only has a single track crossing instead of two. This simplifies our streets and enlarges Brittingham Park 2.
- Raising JND where its causeway meets North Shore Drive might allow for higher boat clearance into Monona Bay, which could be helpful during high water events like 2018.
- The 4-acre “Brittingham Park 2” west of JND with the courts and dog exercise area is difficult to reach and lightly used. An underpass would seamlessly connect it to the lake, increasing its exposure and making it a good place for amenities sought by lakefront visitors such as playgrounds, picnic areas, bathrooms, etc.
- Although this is a bicycling blog, an underpass would naturally benefit pedestrians of all types and especially people who have mobility challenges. My wheelchair-bound mother lives on West Main St. I pushed her across the Broom St crossing — two traffic islands, six ramps, two sets of railroad tracks with uneven pavement, three signal phases, and cars whizzing by in front and behind us non-stop; I will never do that again.
For an exhaustive list of underpass pros & cons, please see Ron Shutvet’s Master Plan Collaborative document.
Wouldn’t an Overpass be Better?
To clear the railroad tracks, an overpass would need to be 50% longer and almost twice as high as the current bridge over East Washington near Starkweather Creek. It would eat up much of Law Park, block views, have long ramps, and add ½ mile and 30′ of climbing to anyone’s journey. At a JND public information meeting, a majority of attendees said they would take a street-level crossing rather than use such a bridge.
Some attendees did express concern that underpasses can be dark, wet, unsafe places, especially at night. The hope is that any John Nolen Drive underpass will be a showpiece of Madison, acting more of a natural corridor than an out-of-the-way tunnel. The City has experience in this, and underpasses built in the past decade under Verona Rd and Gammon Rd are wide and inviting (see the ride-through videos on YouTube).
May 2023 is the critical month. My impression is that City Engineers are inclined to keep the overpass concept on the back-burner. It is now up to the City’s Transportation Commission to insist that an underpass be included in the project. Public input can help! Please follow the John Nolen Drive project, take its surveys, and email your thoughts to JNDproject@cityofmadison.com. Please submit comments to the Transportation Commission in advanced of its meeting on Wed May 24, 2023. Also, reach out to your Alders to let them know how important the underpass is, so that they are informed when the project finally comes before them.