Note: An audio slide show accompanies this story.
While everyone finds traffic to be an inconvenience, few people find it as bothersome as Springfield dairy farmer Dan Roth.
"We plan our farming around when we can get on the road is what it amounts to," says Roth, who lives on County Road K three-quarters of a mile off U.S. Highway 12. "If I leave at about a quarter after 7 a.m., I can't get on the road. Many days I just drive through our fields to get home because traffic is backed up that far."
Like Roth, many residents north of Lake Mendota are familiar with the daily traffic jams crossing the region between Highway 12 and I-90/94. The three main east-west routes - State Road 19, County Road K and County Road M - barely suffice for the amount of traffic filtering through on a regular basis.
The ever-increasing congestion coupled with the projected growth of the area convinced Dane County officials and citizens in the 1990s of the need for another east-west artery deemed the North Mendota Parkway. But the closest the Parkway has come to fruition is in the words of county officials, local farmers and commuters, and the multicolored routes sketched on the maps of the region north of Lake Mendota.
The Parkway is once again being pushed to the forefront of public discourse as the election for Dane County executive nears. Challenger Nancy Mistele has promised to accelerate the process for the North Mendota Parkway as a part of her larger transportation plan for Dane County. Incumbent Kathleen Falk feels that a committee process should be left to map the $30 million to $45 million Parkway with minimal intervention from the county executive.
While both candidates recognize the Parkway's necessity, they differ in their vision of where it will go, what it will look like, and when it will be completed.
In a 2002 Capital Times article, reporter Bill Novak frames the question, "Should the parkway be a local road connecting neighborhoods, a regional road connecting the region's towns or a major east-west corridor connecting the new four-lane U.S. 12 to the six-lane interstate?"
Topf Wells, Falk's chief of staff and her appointee to the North Mendota Parkway Implementation Oversight Committee, says the majority of the committee envisions a "very attractive urban boulevard with four lanes, a divided median, ample shoulders for bicycles and a greater degree of landscaping than is usually the case." This scenario would have a 45 mph speed limit.
"The idea is that it would be a safe, attractive and alternative route," Wells says. "It's not supposed to be a freeway."
But Mistele and other members of the oversight committee foresee the Parkway to be something closer to a freeway than to what is tentatively planned. They fear that a 35 or 45 mph Parkway will not solve the congestion.
"This is a road that is intended to move people around," says Mistele. "It's about convenience, it's about rapid transit, it's about connecting people to where they need to go. You're not going to do that at 35 mph."
County Supv. Eileen Bruskewitz, vice chair of the oversight committee, advocates a higher-speed parkway.
"The traffic that is using our little old County Road M and all of the other roads when County Road M gets backed up, they don't want to go slow," Bruskewitz states. "They want to get from the east side to the west side or the west side to the east side, so it doesn't really make sense to have a low-speed facility."
But Wells says the consensus of the committee is to pursue the low-speed option.
"One of the things that happens if you make it a 65 mph freeway is that it starts to capture additional traffic loads instead of dealing with the folks that want to move from the northeast part of Madison through Middleton," Wells says. "If you make it a 65 mph freeway, then you start capturing people who literally want a highway bypass."
The question of when is perhaps the most politically charged issue surrounding the North Mendota Parkway.
The origins of dialogue about a roadway north of Lake Mendota trace back over a decade, leading some to rebuke Falk's leadership for failing to make the Parkway a priority.
"If the county executive had wanted to see this move forward it could have been done in a heartbeat," says Bruskewitz. "When you want to get something done and you have the political power to do it, you put your best resources on it. The fact that this has taken this long, it's very clear that the county executive did not want this."
Bruskewitz also believes that Mistele, if elected, will take more initiative than Falk has. "If Nancy was in there, my guess is she would be there talking to the municipalities, she would do what she could to help people come together on this," Bruskewitz predicts.
Mistele is equally critical of Falk's role in bringing the Parkway into fruition, emphasizing that the County Executive has failed to make the Parkway a priority during her three terms.
"This is a big issue," Mistele says, "because it's really the difference between somebody that supports doing the right things for a transportation system that supports cars - that would be me - or Kathleen Falk, who has actually shown throughout her history that while she might stand up and talk about the need for it, she actually stands in the way of getting it done."
Instead, Mistele credits other county officials for the progress made on the Parkway thus far.
"While Kathleen gives lip service to supporting it, in reality, it was the leaders of the municipalities along which that corridor will run that finally picked up the ball and started to run with it because she wasn't getting anything done," Mistele says.
Others on the oversight committee are less critical of the role that Falk has played in the drawn-out process of implementing the Parkway.
"Clearly, the county executive is one player in this, but in any kind of intergovernmental process like this, there's no one person who's driving that boat," says Brian Standing, the senior planner with Dane County Planning and Development and staff to the oversight committee. "It's much more complicated to say this is one individual's project or one individual who'd be responsible for how quickly or slowly this process takes."
Wells says though Falk has not played an active role in the process, she has endorsed the committee's effort: "She has strongly supported the implementation of the committee's recommendation."
Falk cites the intergovernmental cooperation of all municipalities in furthering the development of the Parkway.
"Unlike my opponent, I don't believe that the county executive should dictate this decision, but rather we should let this committee - whose members are appointed by local units of government - complete its work," Falk says.
Once a route for the Parkway is mapped and agreed upon by the oversight committee, each of the municipalities would pass an ordinance setting aside land for the Parkway. From there, the Parkway will seek funding from the State Department of Transportation, since Falk has said that the county would not fund the construction of the Parkway, according to Bruskewitz.
To date, the oversight committee has mapped 15 plausible routes. But with each of the potential routes comes a potential problem.
"Corridors that would be located to the south are more likely to cause concern to the City of Middleton and the Town of Westport to their future growth plans," explains Wells. "The middle section tends to be where the environmental resources are… Potential routes that go further to the north disrupt a number of very active, prosperous farms - most of which are dairy farms."
One of those dairy farms belongs to Dan Roth.
"When this road cuts [our farm] in half, I'm going to probably sell out," says Roth. "I'll let developers buy it and everybody can deal with it. If they're going to cut us in half, there is no sense farming anymore."
Leo Acker, another farm owner in Springfield potentially affected by the Parkway, echoes Roth's concerns.
"I have got good land, but it's low land," Acker says. " And if you put two more lanes of cement on either side of my farm, I'll flood out… I might as well get out of it already because there will be nothing left but water all my life... I'd probably have to try to go out to try to buy another farm."
But according to Bruskewitz, the proposed northern routes affecting these farms are the most feasible.
"We need a road probably north of County Road K, where there can be a higher-speed facility to take care of regional traffic," Bruskewitz says. "The northern routes will meet the needs of the traffic patterns that we have for the north part of the county."
Ultimately, the drawn-out issue of the Parkway is a contentious one between Dane County residents, constituents and County Executive candidates, Mistele and Falk. The upcoming County Executive election could prove to be a watershed in getting the Parkway on the road to palpability.
Note: This story is the result of a partnership between Isthmus and UW-Madison journalism professor Sue Robinson's in-depth reporting class. This article and its accompanying audio slide show were produced by Alison Fox, Emily J. Bisek and John B. Hamel.