Now that the Badger Bus terminal on West Washington Avenue is long gone, the UW Memorial Union is becoming the city's de facto bus depot.
On any given day up to 31 intercity buses, from five bus lines, stop at the Union. Only two of the lines are specifically authorized to stop there.
The heavy use of Langdon Street has campus and city officials concerned about safety, particularly when multiple buses queue up at the same time.
"There are visibility issues," says Hank Walter, Wisconsin Union associate director. "I'm not a traffic engineer, but it does make me nervous with the amount of pedestrian traffic in front of the Union."
It's other kinds of traffic, too. "We're trying to find a solution that is going to make the interaction of buses, pedestrians, vehicles and bicyclists safer," says Patrick Kass, UW-Madison director of transportation services.
"Whether that means figuring out a different way to do Langdon Street, or maybe try to move some of the buses to a different location, our goal really is just to try to correct the safety problem that we see here," Kass adds.
The Badger Bus depot, at the corner of Bedford Street and West Washington Avenue, closed in October 2009. It had served several lines, but the industry trend is for intercity bus companies to ticket passengers online and use city streets for boarding. And it's perfectly legal in Madison.
Still, the Langdon Street bus traffic has caught the city's attention. Three months ago, Mayor Paul Soglin set up an inter-agency team to work with the university on a solution.
"There's a perceived safety issue with all of the use of the space," says Brad Murphy, director of the city's Planning Division. "We don't want a situation where somebody does get hurt."
Why the recent increase in the number of bus lines servicing Madison?
"The quick answer is that intercity bus ridership increases measurably with increases in fuel costs," says Jon Evenson, manager of Lamers Connect, which since July 14 has been offering Madison daily route service to and from Dubuque, Green Bay and Wausau, with stops in between. Also, student travel by bus has been up in recent years.
Evenson says that a new industry standard calls for high-volume service to urban centers.
"Madison and UW-Madison fit that model," he says.
The Union has a longtime relationship with Badger Bus and the Van Galder Bus Company, selling tickets for them and offering customer information. The Union does not have such relationships with Jefferson Bus Lines, Lamers Bus Lines or Megabus, which also board passengers on the westbound lane of the 800 block of Langdon Street.
Tour buses sometimes use the location as well. Greyhound Lines used it as a stop until last month. City of Madison buses also board in both the east- and westbound lanes of Langdon in front of the Union, and on the building's west side, on North Park Street.
The Union appreciates some of the bus traffic. "We like being a place for our members, especially students, to pick up routes that are useful to them," says Walter. "Historically, Badger Bus and Van Galder have been doing a good job by focusing on that clientele. Their businesses are set up to meet the needs of our members, primarily students, so that [relationship] really makes sense."
In return, Walter says, these bus lines pay "significant" fees to the Union.
What's become a challenge, he adds, is that more and more bus companies are using Langdon as their stop, but "they're not necessarily as focused on the student and campus market. That increases congestion without adding a lot of service to students."
It also adds to the workload of union staffers, who spend hours fielding questions about bus lines they don't know much about.
As a result, passengers can pay the price, as on Sept. 17 when Megabus was unable to board passengers because the westbound lane of Langdon was closed for a marathon. (Asked about the confusion at the time, the Union information-desk staffer replied, "Yeah, this is real fun.")
"We've told the bus companies we're not a public bus terminal and we are not set up to provide services to people who are changing buses or are waiting for buses who are not Union members," says Walter.
Evenson says it would confuse his customers - particularly if they're students - if Lamers alone were to pick up and drop off passengers at another campus site. But he is not averse to an alternative location.
"The Wisconsin Memorial Union can be congested to say the least," he says. "It would seem that it would be in the interest of the University of Wisconsin to identify and designate a less-congested location, one of sufficient size, to accommodate the demand for public transportation on the University of Wisconsin campus."
Evenson says Lamers worked with the UW and even changed its schedules to avoid times when other bus lines use Langdon, what he calls "a stressed, stressed street." However, he adds, "We have not heard any concerns from the Wisconsin Memorial Union or city regarding our limited operations at the Union."
Jefferson and Megabus lines did not respond to requests for comment.
Solutions that are being looked at by the university and city include additional space for buses on Langdon and alternative boarding locations.
"It's still under study, but we've met with all the intercity bus companies and talked to them about their needs, and, given their customers, where they believe they need to stop within the city," says Murphy. "The next step is to look for alternatives to address the current situation on Langdon Street."
One long-term solution would be to create a bus depot somewhere downtown. Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz proposed a multi-modal transportation hub in June 2010, but that was paired with state funding of a passenger rail depot at the Department of Administration on East Wilson Street, an option now dead under Gov. Scott Walker.
Murphy says that the idea of a bus depot is still alive and under review. "It is one of the things that is to be looked at as far as planning for that area," he says.
University officials would like to keep Badger and Van Galder at the Union to best serve its members. For the rest of the city and the other lines, however, Walter says a depot just makes sense.
"Their customers need a bus depot that can provide information to them, and can be an asset to their company," he says. "And that's not who we are."