The busy and economically important Beltline in Madison will need long-range improvements. The state shouldn't delay study and projects.


When Madison business leaders visited Austin, Texas, a few years ago, they asked a good question. What would city officials in the booming Texas city have done differently if they could go back 30 years — before their economy and population exploded in size.

“They told us the biggest mistake they’ve made as a city is not doing better planning of the transportation infrastructure, and you can just see it,” Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, recalled Tuesday. “They are constantly in a state of traffic jams.”

The Madison region must avoid that fate.

Madison isn’t expanding at Austin’s pace. Yet it resembles in some ways Austin when it was taking off decades ago.

Madison is Wisconsin’s fastest-growing urban area with a reputation for fun that helps attract young professionals. We have a flourishing technology sector, a world-class research university and state Capitol — with predictions of more people and businesses to come.

Yet our city is situated on a narrow isthmus, and the main artery around town — the Beltline — is increasingly congested and dangerous.

Madison can’t ignore its pressing transportation needs, and neither can the state, given Madison’s positive economic impact across Wisconsin.

Gov. Scott Walker rejected a high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee that the federal government was going to pay for. The Republican-run Legislature also has stopped Madison and other regions from creating transit authorities to help pay for better roads and public transportation, including commuter rail.

Those decisions haven’t helped.

Now a study on the long-range needs of Madison’s Beltline has stalled, as highlighted in Sunday’s newspaper by State Journal reporter Mark Sommerhauser.

Our region’s strong growth demands careful planning to avoid gridlock. And putting off a study of how to keep the Beltline moving efficiently and safely far into the future would be a mistake.

Traffic on the Beltline has soared from 76,000 vehicles a day in 1993 to 120,000 a day in 2016, according to the Department of Transportation. Crash rates along stretches of the 19-mile Beltline are double or even triple the state average for large urban freeways.

“Dane County is on pace to add about 120,000 residents between 2010 and 2040,” according to a DOT website. “There is no capacity remaining on the Beltline to serve this growth.”

Diverting big trucks from the Beltline by creating an alternative route between Highway 151 and Interstate 39-90 south of Madison would help. So would a better bus system rapidly moving commuters Downtown.

To the state’s credit, it is expanding the interstate from Madison to Beloit, and redoing Highway 151 from Madison to Verona. The state also has expanded part of the Beltline and reconstructed a key intersection.

Yet further solutions and more state revenue will be needed in future years. State officials should restart the stalled Beltline study to help ensure our transportation system doesn’t hold back our economy.