Make this summer the summer when State Street comes back strong | Editorial

Madison doesn’t need buses on the lower half of State Street, according to a transit consultant hired by the city.

This is great news as it creates space for a pedestrian mall in blocks 400-600.

Jarrett Walker and Associates of Portland, Oregon has just completed a draft plan for new bus routes for Madison. Current routes need to be adjusted to make room for Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s “bus rapid transit” line that will get more people to where they need to go faster.

Not everyone likes all the proposed changes to local bus routes. Aldermen on the North Side, for example, argue that their constituents will lose convenient access.

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But one detail of the draft plan definitely deserves strong public support: All buses — including local routes — should be pulled from lower State Street, as the city’s professional consultant suggests. This would allow for an engaging pedestrian mall extending at least three blocks toward the State Capitol from the popular Library Mall on the UW-Madison campus.

Ideally, all of State Street would become one grand promenade and urban park with sidewalk cafes, public art, trees, live music, small business kiosks and more. It’s been a dream in our community for half a century – a dream that the State Journal editorial board will continue to promote.

For now, however, the mayor insists that his sleek, long BRT buses must travel the upper half of State Street. We do not agree with this decision and we hope that a future mayor will see more of the potential of the downtown area.

But we’re glad the city consultant, hired by the Rhodes-Conway administration, wants to develop a bus-free open space in the lower half of the state. It keeps the momentum going for something truly wonderful on State Street that will help bring back and energize crowds and community life as the pandemic finally recedes.

City Hall should start planning now for more events and spaces for outdoor fun this summer — not just on State Street, but across the city. This will require making the popular “Stratery” program permanent.

City officials wisely created Steatery to help the service industry during the pandemic. The playfully named program allows for more table space outside, where the virus has a harder time spreading.

Bars and restaurants in the city were able to apply for special permission to eat and drink outdoors in parking spaces along the street, in private car parks and on terraces. This has helped many restaurants and taverns to stay alive. Some cafes and bars have even been able to use the space in front of neighboring businesses, if these owners agree. This improved the look and use of vacant storefronts.

Unfortunately, the Steatery program will expire on April 14 if city leaders don’t act quickly. They should absolutely vote to keep this going no matter what happens with the virus. That’s because Madison learned in a powerful way how popular it can be to eat and drink outdoors, even when it’s cold. Street cafes create an enchanting ambiance, inviting visitors and residents alike to stroll and explore more of what Madison has to offer.

Part of a smart plan offered by Downtown Ald. Mike Verveer and others, the Steatery program would become permanent next month, although bars and restaurants would have to start paying fees for additional space. It seems right as the economic damage of COVID-19 diminishes. Verveer also wants to balance more space on and near city streets with public safety and noise concerns. The advice of traffic engineers will always apply and will make some requests unworkable.

State Street, of course, is ripe for more outdoor activity because, by 2023, buses are expected to be off its lower three blocks, according to the consultant’s plan. As soon as the weather improves this spring, Madison should loop down State Street for the weekend and try a longer pedestrian mall. Assuming the extra space is popular – and we’re confident it will be – Madison can then proceed with the transformation of at least half of State Street into a permanent vehicle-free mall, similar to Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado.

Madison should make it the summer her most famous street comes back with a bang after years of struggling.

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