A bicyclist makes his way around the Capitol Square on a rainy morning.

Even though Wisconsin state officials nixed Madison’s plan to put a contraflow bike lane on the Capitol Square, the city is moving ahead with plans to make room for it during a street project scheduled to start next month.

Chris Petykowski of Madison's Engineering Department said the city is widening the Capitol Square portion of East Mifflin Street by two feet, to 42.5 feet, to accommodate a bike lane that would allow bicyclists to travel against the flow of auto traffic.

The State Capitol and Executive Residence Board rejected a plan for such a bike lane in January over safety concerns. The city is hoping that the board will reconsider its decision in the future. 

“We wouldn’t have needed to widen the street two feet if we didn’t plan for the contraflow,” Petykowski said. “We’re putting all the conduits in the ground so all the bike signals can be done and installed very easily, so it’s just a matter of getting this approved at a later date.”

He said until that approval comes, the city would simply mark the streets with the current configuration, which has cyclists going with the traffic flow.

The city had hoped the bike lane would solve the problem of bikers taking to the sidewalk to travel east from State Street to the bike boulevard off the square on East Mifflin Street. Currently the only legal means for entering the bike boulevard is to go with the one-traffic around the square, adding approximately six blocks to the route.

But the 16-member panel that oversees the Capitol and Governor’s Mansion grounds has jurisdiction over 13 feet of the street around the square and the proposed bike lane is within the state’s realm.

State Sen. Fred Risser, a member of the board and an avid biker, said board members deemed the contraflow bike lane proposal unsafe. And while he’s willing to hear the city’s case when the board meets again in September, he doesn’t sound like he’s about to reconsider his vote.

“It was discussed at length and it was unanimously rejected,” he said. “It doesn’t really make sense to allow bikes to go against traffic and against the traffic and against the parking lane. You’re going to have more problems than you’re going to solve.”

Risser, a Madison Democrat, also said the contraflow lane runs counter to the concept that cyclists should follow the same rules as motor vehicles.

"Here you’re turning around and saying in this case the bikes don’t follow the rules of the road,” he said.

Contraflow bike lanes are nothing new. For decades, a contraflow lane has provided a way for bicycle traffic to navigate traffic-heavy University Avenue on the UW-Madison campus. That stretch sees about 2,800 cyclists per workday in non-winter months, according to 2012 traffic counts.

In recent years Madison added contraflow lanes to South Pinckney, East Mifflin and West Main streets leading up to the square.

But Risser said parking along the inside lane of the square would put bikes in a head-on course with people trying to parallel park. And he said that crossing intersections would create a problem. City officials maintain that issue can be solved with proper signaling.

“There wasn’t any real sympathy in letting them cut across Mifflin Street,” Risser said.

And he doesn't think the bike lane will do anything to keep bikers off the sidewalk.

"No matter what you do the bikes are going to go on the sidewalk anyway," he said. 

He said staffers from the state Department of Administration, which worked with the city in devising the plan, made the presentation at the Jan. 11 meeting during which the plan was rejected.

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Petykowski said the city hasn’t decided yet on a strategy to move forward. But the city clearly intends to eventually get its way.

“The idea is that sometime in the future we’ll be in a position where, should the decision change, we would be able to implement it very easily,” he said. “It’s just a matter of paint.”

The bike lane isn’t the only complication to the Capitol Square project, slated to run from April 11 to Aug. 31 as crews tackle the north side of the square, at a cost of $2.7 million. That figure doesn’t include work on the south side of the Capitol, scheduled for next year.

The project, which involves street repaving, replacement of water mains and sanitary sewers, as well as some sidewalk work, will do more than merely subject the stately grounds to noisy and unsightly road work. It will be an ever-present factor in the many summertime events staged at the Capitol Square.

“There are a lot of events to work around, that’s the big thing,” Petykowski said. “We have lots of language in this contract to work around all the events. We went through that with a fine-tooth comb and worked with all the event folks to try to minimize disruptions as much as we can.”

The biggest hurdle was Art Fair on the Square on July 9 and 10, during which the city will halt work on the project and essentially make it temporarily disappear.

“We have an internal shutdown where they actually get off the site completely and do any temporary pavement that’s necessary to get everything back up to grade so that the art fair has the whole square like they usually do,” Petykowski said.

Work will also be on hold during the Dane County Farmers' Market each Saturday and crews will knock off early for the six Wednesday night Concerts on the Square, which occupy the Capitol's south lawn. Petykowski said the concerts will be more of an issue in 2017 when work moves to that side.

Bus service will also be moved to the north outer Capitol loop during the project, but will remain on the square on the south side.

The project should be wrapped up by the Taste of Madison, which takes place on Sept. 3 and 4.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.