East Washington Avenue: A deadly problem

After the deadliest year in at least a decade, the city says they're planning new solutions. Could traffic cameras and protected bike and pedestrian spaces be next?

A bike and a boot were still in the Pawling Street intersection when Karen Andro passed through on her way to work two weeks ago.

She had a sinking feeling all day she would know the person who lost their life in the July 2 crash. She did.

“He was so appreciative, so grateful,” she said of David Frischkorn, 57. She’d met him a few years back as part of her work as director of Hope’s Home Ministries, when he had struggled with housing insecurity. “How I knew him was just as a good person.”

Andro’s grandparents lost their lives in a Dane County car crash before she even got the chance to know them. She’d known another victim who died on East Washington in years past.

It’s tough to swallow yet another crash-related death, and the emotions aren’t far from the surface as she talks about David.

“I came here after the accident,” she said, standing by the flowers and balloons tied to a post near the intersection where he lost his life. “And I prayed right here that this will never happen again.”

Enforcement on rise after deadliest year in a decade

According to data in a crash map operated by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, East Washington Avenue–the stretch of U.S. Highway 151 from I-90 to the state capitol — is experiencing its deadliest year in at least a decade. Now at five deaths along that stretch in 2021, none of the past ten years have reached more than three.

There were just three in total from I-90 to the capitol from 2017-2020.

Vision Zero, implemented last year, is the city’s ten-year plan to eliminating traffic deaths. It included lowering the speed limits along East Washington, making crosswalks more visible, introducing traffic calming measures and narrowed lanes in places, and retiming traffic signals.

Enforcement is kicking upwards: the Madison Police Department is on track to issue more speeding citations than any in the past five years. Through July 1, officers wrote 151 speeding citations on East Washington. That’s more than any of the last five years with the exception of 2017’s 178 citations (all other years were fewer than 100).

The Department of Transportation is in part helping fund that. Ramping up enforcement in the wake of recent deaths, Lt. Tony Fiore said crews of five officers and a lieutenant are using the grant to fund overtime to run about 30 multi-hour speed traps this month.

An “officer will use a laser, speed-measuring device, will record the speed of a vehicle, and he’ll get on the radio and call out to officers staged a little bit down the road,” Lt. Fiore explained. Officers are routinely stopping drivers going 10-15 miles an hour over the limit.

History of the highway

Formerly an industrial corridor into the heart of the capitol marked by auto dealerships, East Washington has evolved over the last decade in a way that has attracted droves of pedestrians and bikers–but with few fundamental changes of the U.S. highway that runs through it to match.

In a WISC-TV segment dated June 29, 2003, former mayor Dave Cieslewicz had called for reducing lanes and increasing medians and greenery on E. Washington as part of a massive reconstruction project in the works. The highway ultimately underwent a $75.2 million dollar reconstruction from 2004-2009 with the same six lanes as before.

“One way to look at this is its the absolutely wrong decision for the next 4 years and its the absolutely right decision for the next 40 years,” Cieslewicz had said. “We’re rebuilding it at tremendous public cost and this is a once in a generation opportunity to get it right.”

The reconstruction paved the way for a downtown boon, with the last decade transforming the capitol corridor under a revitalization plan and bringing high rise apartments like the Galaxie and Constellation buildings, entertainment destinations like The Sylvee, and an ongoing ream of new businesses and restaurants.

Core goals under the master plan prioritized maintaining the iconic capitol view, developing the city’s economic core to bring new high-paying jobs, respecting existing neighborhoods and developing an area friendly to pedestrians and alternative transportation modes.

Safety has been a component throughout planning documents, but decades of planning still haven’t fully addressed how to safely maintain a six-lane highway that serves as a main transportation artery of the city alongside a district designed for bikers and pedestrians.

Geographical limitations

East Washington carries about 50,000 cars a day–a load comparable to a highway–channeling workers into the heart of Madison’s primary economic engines, the capitol and the campus.

“The fundamental problem is that we live on an Isthmus,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said. “I don’t know where else that traffic would go, honestly.”

Could it loop around the Isthmus and back over John Nolen Drive?

“Nobody wants to expand transportation corridors near them, frankly. We’re fairly locked into our existing streets,” she noted.

Traffic engineer Tom Mohr said its not a perfect system, but the city is locked into maps and routes developed in the 1800s for the city–without vehicles that could travel 60 or 70 miles per hour in mind.

That makes it difficult, he said, and starting from scratch isn’t an option. Instead, the city is focusing on changes that can be implemented through “the three E’s”: engineering, education, and enforcement.

“When you see the speeds that we collect out here, it’s almost surprising you don’t hear of more crashes,” Mohr said. “When drivers choose to drive that fast and just blatantly disobey traffic laws, it makes it difficult because there’s not a lot we can do engineering-wise to cut down on that.”

State control

It’s the road’s designation as a U.S. Highway and under state authority that makes changes challenging. Dedicating a bus lane for the incoming bus rapid transit system, currently set to go operational by 2024, has been difficult enough to negotiate with the DOT, Rhodes-Conway said. Outright removing or narrowing them would likely be nonstarters. (Watch the full interview with the mayor at the bottom of this article.)

“The state does have a significant degree of control on the configuration of the highway,” she said. “In the past at least, they have been particularly interested in making sure that corridor maintains the throughput of traffic that it has.”

The state’s control is over configuration, something the mayor acknowledges has led to “conflicts” in the past. The department can also sign off on operational and maintenance changes to the road, the DOT said in a statement, but the city is the lead agency for the latter two–changes like paint, crosswalk, speed limits.

While residents are calling for a fundamental redesign to the road that puts emphasis on pedestrians and alternative transit modes instead of cars, the DOT pushed back on that position.

“Distracted driving and erratic behavior are conditions that geometric changes would have no effect on these unfortunate crashes,” a DOT spokesperson said.

It’s the current configuration of the road, not just the driving behavior that its design encourages, that many residents say they have the most issues with.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” one nearby resident noted. Ian Jamison and his wife won’t walk or bike the road, despite their plans to move directly along it in August after living a couple blocks away. “I think we as a city have a decision to make.”

Rise in fatalities driving new solutions

While structural changes to the road thanks to geographical, historical and legal limitations are unlikely, the mayor says there’s other solutions now on the table.

For example, traffic cameras. Currently illegal in Wisconsin (and Milwaukee so far unsuccessful in attempts to pass legislation that would allow them in their own city), Rhodes-Conway said the city would be starting a conversation with the state legislature to make a bill legalizing them a reality–at least in Madison.

Traffic cameras often come with controversy–particularly as an automated revenue generator–but studies also are fairly conclusive on their effectiveness. A 2016 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found the likelihood that drivers would speed on roads with cameras decreased by 62%.

“I think it’s time for us to reopen that conversation,” Rhodes-Conway said.

Neither is the city ruling out other options where they might find easier approval with the DOT–things like protected bike lanes, new crosswalk configurations, or more division and protection for pedestrian spaces.

Additional pedestrian bridges besides the existing one on E. Washington at Marquette Street are unlikely, for the simple fact that at least in Madison, they don’t work. The mayor said that throughout the city, residents typically prefer to dart across the street instead of take the longer route over the bridge.

Whatever the solutions are, it doesn’t change the acute problem in the moment. When Karen was driving past the site of David’s death a couple weeks ago, she was feeling the pressure of being late for a delivery at her job farther down the road.

“Better that I get there late–and everyone be safe.”

View the full interview with Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway below.

Correction: This article previously stated E. Washington Ave. underwent a “$752 million” reconstruction. This has been corrected to “$75.2 million.”