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Sharp debate continues over lights on the Southwest Commuter bike path
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Opponents to the lighting argued that there were no safety hazards on the path.
Opponents to the lighting argued that there were no safety hazards on the path.
Credit:Nora G. Hertel

Cyclists locked up their bikes in front of city hall last night and walked in discussing lights and visibility on the Southwest Commuter Path. The cyclists joined about 90 attendees and 20 alders and city staff for a joint meeting of the city's Pedestrian, Bicycle & Motor Vehicle Commission and Board of Public Works. The public hearing addressed a resolution to install 20-foot tall lights on the path.

Like two previous meetings on the proposed lighting that took place last December and July, the debate was starkly divided. But conversation remained civil as 43 people from the community presented opinions over the course of two and a half hours, nearly half in support and half opposed. Fifty attendees registered in opposition to the resolution and 37 registered in support. Representatives from the Madison Police Department and the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin attended to support the proposal.

"I really value a forum like this and the exchange of ideas," said Peter Gray. "I really do believe in the big picture -- lighting the path is a good thing."

The city Board of Public Works agreed with Gray, and five out of five present board members voted in favor of the resolution. The Pedestrian, Bicycle & Motor Vehicle Commission did not make quorum and could not make a decision on the issue. The resolution may proceed to the Common Council at its December 11 meeting, or it may be held until the Pedestrian, Bicycle & Motor Vehicle Commission can revisit it, said Ald. Bridget Maniaci.

Ald. Anita Weier, a member of the Board of Public Works, said she received a couple hundred emails, equally divided in support and against the lighting. She said that lighting logically leads to increased safety. Other board members echoed the tie between lighting and safe passage.

Attendee Melanie Foxcroft spoke in support of the lights as a safety issue. "I need those lights," said Foxcraft, who uses the bike path. She pointed out that streets have street lights even though cars have headlights, to counter the argument that bike lights are a sufficient way to illuminate the path.

Dana Petit, who has experience in landscape architecture, said, "perception of safety is a good choice for Madison. Perception is what's important if you want people to use a space more."

But opponents to the lighting argued that there were no safety hazards on the path, and that the lights presented by the Traffic Engineering department will cause temporary blindness as people move between the bright and dark spots on the path.

"Lights don't equal safety," said Christie Olsen. She noted that there has been no criminal activity recorded on the path, despite the reservations presented by bikers and other path users.

"How can 'no identified crime' get any safer?" Olsen said, eliciting laughs and claps from lighting opponents around the room.

Many opponents to the resolution would prefer smaller lights, called bollards, but Parking Engineer and Traffic Manager David Dryer explained that bollards would cost $1.1 million -- compared to the $250,000 cost of the proposed plan -- as well as attract vandalism, interfere with runners who jog alongside the paved path and fail to provide vertical illumination.

Ald. Brian Solomon, one of the sponsors of the resolution, praised traffic engineering staff for adjusting the quality of the lighting in response to early complaints from neighbors, but acknowledged that the issue would likely remain divided.

"A lot of people strongly feel this is the right thing to do for the city," said Solomon. "A lot of people strongly feel this is the wrong thing, or the wrong time."

Solomon noted that he and the other six co-sponsors of the resolution were acting on a design conceived when the path was first constructed 11 years ago. There was, "a conduit laid down for future lighting at the time the path was built," he said.

But the debate will continue. Residents will have at least one more opportunity to speak on the proposal before the Common Council acts on it. Maniaci noted that the alders themselves are divided, and that Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, council president, and Chris Schmidt, president pro tem, both oppose the resolution.

"[There is] a vigorous and healthy debate with the alders behind the scene," said Maniaci.

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