A last-minute budget move could sabotage much-needed changes in Madison’s transportation systems.
Illustration: The City of Madison’s map of proposed Bus Rapid Transit routes is shown through blurs and distortions.
Alders Mike Verveer, Barbara Harrington-McKinney, Sheri Carter, Syed Abbas, and Charles Myadze have co-sponsored a budget amendment that, if passed, would leave city staff in the lurch and would likely significantly delay Madison’s planned Bus Rapid Transit project. This amendment—proposed just as Madison’s Common Council approaches the likely final passage during meetings this week of the city’s 2022 budget—is a giant middle finger to the thousands of hours of work and thought on the part of City staff, advocates, and bus riders.
The budget amendment is a perfect encapsulation of the worst of Madison: It would preserve our city’s status as the kind of place that rejects basic needs on the basis of holding out for a more perfect (and never-to-be-realized) vision, combined with racism and classism that paints the bus and the people who use it as dirty, unworthy, and better hidden from sight.
The amendment, like so much else in Madison, is steeped in lip-service to democracy. The amendment would freeze all project funds and halt all project work until Council approves the initial East-West routes. This may sound reasonable to those just dipping their toes in the conversation. Yet for the thousands of residents who have been engaged in the BRT process for years, this amendment is not democracy: it is a Hail Mary power-grab by Alders who already voted in support of the current routing proposal, first in March 2020 and again in January 2021. The time for these kinds of tantrums is long past.
Opponents of the current BRT plan have assembled a fine old-guard crew, including Downtown Madison, Inc (DMI), an array of individual businesses along State Street, and four former mayors (Paul Soglin, Dave Cieslewicz, Sue Bauman, and Joe Sensenbrenner). In an attempt to veil their critiques as higher-minded than simple anti-bus (and anti-bus-rider) sentiment, they have trotted out the decades-old “what if”: State Street as a pedestrian promenade. I am sure that this idea looks nice on whatever ancient copy of SimCity Paul Soglin has loaded on his Windows XP laptop, but there is no existing plan and no funding for that vision. In the decades since State Street’s rebirth, no city leaders have managed to bring the pedestrian mall fantasy into reality. We should not fall for the snake oil of the perfect city experience for suburbanites on a trip to the Overture Center. Furthermore, no amount of backdoor power-plays and newspapers willing to print their drivel changes the fact that we last elected a mayor who specifically ran on the issue of seeing the BRT project through to completion. There are reasons to criticize and replace Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. The BRT project—thus far an admirable campaign promise kept—is not one of them.
That so much of the public conversation about BRT has focused on downtown businesses also misses the larger point: Our transit network needs to create stronger connections between all areas of the city. Madison Metro has a well-documented equity problem. Black people and low-income people who use Metro tend to have to transfer more often and endure longer travel times than white and high-income riders. BRT’s initial phase focuses on an east/west line. Delays will further push back work on a north/south line, which arguably is the more important one in terms of racial equity.
If we allow this amendment to pass, we will not merely delay BRT by a few months. We should expect a delay of a year or more (adding millions to the cost of the project) with the potential to permanently lose federal funds. The Metro Network Redesign—a concurrent and separate project to refresh bus routes to provide more relevant service—is entirely dependent on the assumption that the BRT project will occur, and it is intended to alleviate some of the inequities faced by bus riders. We are already woefully behind in designing a transportation system that doesn’t punish predominantly poor and Black riders.
Alders on Tuesday will debate this amendment from the comfort of their own homes. While Alders posture about the importance of keeping the status quo just a little bit longer, there will be bus riders across this city waiting nearly an hour for a bus, some shaking in the cold at the open-air transfer points. And if the Alders debate long enough, there will be no one waiting at those stops, because the bus will long since have ended service. Those most in need of a warm and quick bus ride—food service workers, hotel workers, caretakers—will find themselves instead walking for miles, or waiting on an unreliable friend, or begging their ancient car to start. Delaying this project would create more transportation misery for the Madison residents already most squeezed by our high-cost, so-called livable city.
Finally, the implementation of BRT is fundamental to a potentially seismic shift in transportation policy. In addition to BRT and the Network Redesign, Madison is set to adopt a Vision Zero plan (to eliminate all traffic deaths and severe injuries by 2030); a Complete Green Streets plan (to fundamentally reshape city policy around our right-of-way design and priorities); the new Safe Streets Madison program (a combination of various pools of money into a more streamlined and equitable framework for safety investments); and an improved Transportation Demand Management Program (to reduce vehicle miles traveled and impact land use patterns). Finally, there is the renewed hope that Madison will be finally added to an improved Amtrak route, connecting us with Minneapolis, Chicago, and Milwaukee.
All of those programs are intended to save lives and to make it easier for more people to take more trips by non-car modes. None of them will be feasible without a major investment in frequent, all-day, fast public transit that serves the places people most want to go—that is, BRT. Policies that design our streets differently and support safe and convenient non-car options require a modernized transit system. We cannot ask people to take more trips via non-car alternatives if we haven’t provided them with those alternatives. Each of these projects requires countless hours of staff and city commission time. Delays in the BRT project thus risk the speed at which we get necessary transportation policy changes.
If you are reading this article and wondering about light rail or a State Street zipline, I beg of you to stop. Think of it like this: the real question in deciding to get the COVID-19 vaccine was not “vaccine side effects” versus “no vaccine.” It was “vaccine side effects” versus “debilitating, deadly, and contagious disease.” This is not a question of light rail or a pedestrian mall versus Bus Rapid Transit. This is a question of Bus Rapid Transit, or sluggish and inadequate investment in evolving Madison’s public transit system. The latter is a deathknell to emissions reductions and transportation equity.
Bus Rapid Transit and its proposed routing are not perfect because, as it turns out, nothing is. Yet if enough Alders can tune out the whining of short-sighted business interests and the cynical logic of this amendment, we will be on our way to the improved transportation system that our city desperately needs. But this amendment is not the end. Given the potential of the comprehensive policy changes coming, we should see this amendment for what it is: obstructionists and businesses insisting on getting their way, a multi-year planning process be damned. For those of us who imagine a city where no one dies on our streets, where workers have access to frequent and reliable transit, where we actually stick to our stated values of tackling climate change, and who want to see this vision everywhere in Madison—not just on one “special” street—we also need to organize. This is the beginning of a larger war, one that we cannot realistically win without investment, now, in the humble bus.
There’s more where this came from.
If you enjoyed this story, sign up for the Tone Madison email newsletter. It’s the best way to keep up with our work, and it hits your inbox every Thursday morning, complete with our special Microtones column and more.