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Dane County study looks to alleviate congestion on Highway M

December 10, 2017 GMT

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said he remembers Highway M as a standard country road when he was growing up in Middleton. That’s not the case anymore, as the county’s population has doubled since he was born and commuters now clog the thoroughfare that connects Middleton to Waunakee across the north side of Lake Mendota.

As part of the recently adopted budget, the county will fund a $2 million study into the 5.5-mile stretch of the highway that has long been a thoroughfare and traffic headache for commuters.

“It’s beyond super busy,” said Sup. Dave Ripp, whose District 29 includes that section of the highway.

As it cuts through Middleton, Highway M has four lanes, but just two blocks east of Highway Q, it narrows to two. It travels five miles before another lane is added in Waunakee, less than a mile west of Highway 113.

Commuters from Waunakee, DeForest and Madison’s North Side use Highway M to get to work on the West Side because it is the quickest route around Lake Mendota.

For years though, Ripp said it’s been clear that Highway M needs more lanes and a redesign of the intersection with Highway K.

This isn’t a new conversation for the county either. For decades, the county has studied and made plans for some sort of improvements to transit north of Lake Mendota. The county was close to creating a North Mendota Parkway in 2004 which would have created a sort of “North Beltline” from Interstate 39-90 near Windsor to Highway 12 near Middleton.

The debate continued for years. In 2010 the board recommendations from the North Mendota Parkway Implementation Oversight Committee, but funding for the project was never secured.

Chairwoman Sharon Corrigan, whose District 26 includes Middleton, said the study funded in the budget must document the need for expansion of Highway M or funding for the project might not be secured this time as well.

“It’s not something the county would be footing the whole bill for. We would be looking for partner dollars,” Corrigan said, adding that those partners will need confidence that their money is necessary.

Parisi said that the project is an easier sell than the North Mendota Parkway.

“Looking to expand an existing roadway to four lanes is a more possible or practical approach,” Parisi said.

Dane County’s increasing population has affected the thoroughfare, Corrigan said. Commuters traveling from either side of Madison and its suburbs has led to heavy build-ups of traffic, particularly near the intersection with Highway K.

Even with congestion, Highway M is still the fastest route, Ripp said, but it can be frustrating.

Ripp said the traffic has made it risky for bicyclists to ride along the highway as drivers get frustrated and will occasionally pass on the right shoulder.

“There’s a lot of dangerous things happening,” Ripp said.

In 2012, bicyclist Carrie Pete was struck and killed on Highway M when a fatigued driver veered onto the shoulder.

Corrigan said one of the goals of the study and its preliminary design is to determine where to place bike paths to improve safety for cyclists. Other points of the study include how to incorporate roadside stops or shelters for possible mass transit along the highway.

The stretch north of Lake Mendota isn’t the only section of Highway M to see improvements. On Madison’s Far West Side to Verona — from Valley View Road to Cross Country Road — Highway M is currently under construction to expand from two to four lanes and even six lanes in sections. The intersection with Highway PD will also see improvements during the project, which is set to finish in fall 2019.

The county isn’t just working on Highway M. Other transportation projects are planned or underway around the county. Parisi said the work is needed to keep up with the population growth in the area.

“It’s not a project that’s being done in a vacuum,” Parisi said.

The study of Highway M and expansions of other county roads will be funded in part by a county vehicle registration fee that will go into effect next year. Parisi said the county was no longer able to fund transportation projects just based on the property tax. If money wasn’t brought in, he said the county would have to kick necessary projects down the road.

“Looking to expand an existing roadway to four lanes is a more possible or practical approach.” Joe Parisi, Dane County executive “It’s not something the county would be footing the whole bill for. We would be looking for partner dollars.” Sharon Corrigan, chairwoman of the North Mendota Parkway Implementation Oversight Committee