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Downtown Madison’s “hairball” intersection would get a little less hairy for left-turners and visitors to Machinery Row, but the local neighborhood association contends the redesign still doesn’t hew close enough to the interests of pedestrians and bicyclists.

After more than two years of planning, construction at the intersection of Williamson, South Blair and East Wilson streets as they connect with John Nolen Drive is set to begin in 2019 and could stretch to 2021. The City Council is expected to take up the plan on Tuesday.

Chief among the changes proposed by city traffic engineers are:

  • The elimination of the Wilson Street spur that fronts the Hotel Ruby Marie and is used by southbound Blair Street traffic to head toward the Capitol. The area would be turned into green space, and right turns from Blair would occur where westbound traffic from Williamson Street enters Wilson.
  • The addition of a northbound left-turn lane on John Nolen Drive to Wilson and a southbound left-turn lane from Blair onto Williamson.
  • Moving the driveway to Machinery Row businesses southwest along John Nolen from its current spot near the intersection to a spot closer to an existing exit from Monona Terrace.
  • Moving the point at which the Capital City trail crosses Williamson east from the intersection to South Blount Street, where a bike-specific diagonal crossing and signals would be installed.
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  • The city is also seeking to persuade the Federal Railroad Administration to silence train horns at the intersection by making the left and center lanes of westbound Williamson Street left-turn only. The center lane now allows drivers to go straight and over the train tracks.

While the Marquette Neighborhood Association has been pleased with changes to the plan, it contends in a May 29 letter they “have not gone far enough to comply with the visions for the City of Madison and the Marquette Neighborhood in terms of safety, walkability and sustainability.”

The neighborhood stretches east from Blair to around First Street, and includes the south side of the Isthmus. Neighborhood association officials say:

  • There were little to no accurate data about pedestrian and bicycle traffic used in the creation of the hairball redesign.
  • A soft right-turn “channel” from John Nolen onto Williamson and associated traffic island between that lane and Williamson should be eliminated, and the intersection converted to a more traditional configuration with vehicles taking 90-degree right turns from John Nolen to Williamson.
  • The project area should be extended east to Williamson’s intersection with Jenifer Street, “where auto drivers regularly make illegal right turns onto Jenifer to cut through the neighborhood, and often at a high rate of speed.”

Other concerns include programming traffic signals to allow enough crossing time for pedestrians and bicyclists, and the need for wider terraces and dedicated, two-way Capital City trail lanes for walkers and bikers near Machinery Row.

Madison principal engineer Chris Petykowski denied that the city wasn’t taking enough account of pedestrian and bike traffic at the intersection, saying counts of both had been included in designing changes.

“This is not the best for cars,” he said of the design, “but we think it is the best for pedestrians, bikes, cars and buses.”

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'Hairball' intersection

The intersection of Williamson, South Blair and East Wilson streets and John Nolen Drive is in line for $3.74 million in upgrades.

Bikers and pedestrians currently face crossing the channel lane with the walk sign and then waiting on the island for the walk sign to cross Williamson, or going against the light to cross the channel in order catch the light to cross Williamson. The two lights aren’t synchronized, even though they’re taking bikers and walkers in the same direction.

But eliminating the right-turn channel and traffic island would hurt safety and traffic flow, he said, and without them, pedestrians would be crossing at the same time vehicles are trying to turn right, including at peak traffic times when there can be as many as 800 vehicles an hour there.

“They think more traffic is entering their neighborhood” via the right-turn channel and at a too high rate of speed, Petykowski said.

He hoped the left-turn-only lane onto Wilson would make it more attractive for eastbound drivers to continue straight on Blair because they will no longer have to worry about getting caught waiting behind drivers who want to turn left. They could then more efficiently get to East Washington and take that east.

The angle of the right-turn channel would also be sharpened, he said, and a speed-table installed — both to slow traffic.

With that, “I feel we are kind of meeting some of their goals,” he said.

He said the project was never meant to extend from the hairball intersection to Jenifer Street, a distance of about 950 feet. “We kind of just had to stop at some point,” he said.

Marlisa Kopenski Condon, who chairs the neighborhood association’s Traffic Committee, said the association doesn’t hold out much hope of making major changes to the redesign plan at this point but will advocate for bicyclists and pedestrians as the plan is implemented, such as by trying to make sure the timing of traffic signals accommodates them.

She pointed to the increase in development on the city’s east Isthmus and said transportation planning needs to take on a broader focus.

“Corridor planning is really the drum we’re going to start beating shortly,” she said.

Ald. Marsha Rummel, whose 6th District includes the Marquette Neighborhood and most of the intersection, said she doesn’t expect any “major roadblocks” to the plan when it goes to the council Tuesday.

If the council votes to move ahead, the design would come back to that body in final form in about a year, Petykowski said. Approval then would allow the city to start seeking bids for construction.

Work to replace pavement and make other changes on Williamson and Wilson, and to create the trail crossing at Blount would be done in 2019, with the rest of the improvements coming in 2020 or 2021, Petykowski said. The total cost of the project is about $3.74 million, with $1.94 million of that covered with federal safety improvement funds.

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.