Scary Wauwatosa Avenue Suddenly Becoming a Model City Street

Radical changes to the stretch from Longfellow School north may be only the beginning as a new traffic mindset takes hold in City Hall.

The paint is on the pavement, new safety signs have been installed, and city workers are rebuilding a sidewalk ramp at a street corner that had become synonymous with danger.

Almost overnight, a stretch of Wauwatosa Avenue formerly known as a traffic free-for-all has been made officially, and clearly, a two-lane street where pedestrians and bicyclists have some rights.

From West North Avenue to West Center Street, passing on the right is now passé — not to say illegal. Bicycle and parking lanes are clearly delineated, and in some places diagonal stripes indicate "No lane."

In the middle of the stretch, at West Wright Street, a notorious crosswalk is being made as boldly obvious as possible.

It's the place where, in November, a 12-year-old student was hit and suffered a severe leg fracture when a driver zipped past a stopped car — stopped for a school crossing guard, as it turned out.

The outcry at the time was loud and clear, led by Ald. Bobby Pantuso, . Ald. Jeff Roznowski, who has been since he was appointed, also helped push, as did Ald. Jason Wilke, who has also long been an advocate for saner urban byways.

But all of them give credit for putting Wauwatosa Avenue on the fast track toward slower traffic to newly minted Ald. Joel Tilleson — who admits that getting something done right away was possible mainly because he just didn't know it was presumed to be impossible.

At any rate, the white stripes and chartreuse signs near Longfellow present a strong signal that Wauwatosa is through tolerating city streets that look like highways and drivers who act like they're at the races.

More than that, there are visions in the minds of elected officials and concerned citizens that this former black-eye segment of road could, in the not-too-distant future, become the shining example for all well-traveled ways in Wauwatosa.

Safety is on many minds

While the city had already begun to study problem school zones, Tilleson wanted something done about Wauwatosa Avenue soon — like before the 2012-13 school year started — even before he was elected in April.

"When I was campaigning," Tilleson said, "I thought the big issues on people's minds would be things like sewers and taxes. But the one thing I heard over and over, more than anything else, was 'What can we do about Wauwatosa Avenue, the safety problem?'

"I decided that if I was elected, I was going to make that my issue. I was going to see that something got done."

Veteran aldermen were not even reserved in their skepticism when Tilleson announced his intentions as a new Common Council member.

"Several colleagues told me, 'Good luck with that, but you'll be working on it until your first term is up. You'll still be at this four years from now."

The problem, as they saw it, was that Tilleson would not only have to deal with his city's own bureaucracy — the Police Department, Public Works, the council's Traffic and Safety Committee, all have a hand in traffic control — but also the county, which runs bus routes, and especially the monolithic Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Wauwatosa Avenue, frequently compared to a highway through a school zone, is in fact a highway through a school zone. It is designated State Highway 181, and therefore anything the city proposes to substantively change must be approved by the DOT.

Top-down troubleshooting

In a move he now says was probably naive, although certainly effective, Tilleson started at the top. He contacted DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb, who, Tilleson said, listened with interest to the problem and referred Wauwatosa's case to the southeast regional director, Dewayne Johnson.

"Before I knew it," Tilleson said, "they were contacting me. They put together a task force of six people, administrators, analysts, engineers. It was amazing how fast it happened.

"There were two meetings in June, and it was pretty much done. They looked at what we wanted to do, made some recommendations, and told us to move forward."

What's more, they even offered to help pay for it — if the city could wait until 2013 so that the assistance could be budgeted.

"It's great what they're proposing," said DOT regional safety engineer Stacey Pierce, who served on the Wauwatosa Avenue task force. "They're better defining what they have out there — which is really only a two-lane road with parking.

"We're always happy to meet with local officials and citizens," Pierce said. "We can't be everywhere and see everything. We get a lot of input from local people on urban highways."

Tilleson couldn't wait until next year, and with the state's blessing and some creative reallocation of paint by the Public Works Department (the plan is not to repaint the despised chicane lanes on North Avenue in East Tosa), the job has been done.

It is even possible, though not certain, that some of the costs already incurred, including that $10,000 worth of paint, plus signage and curb work, could be reimbursed next year by the DOT.

'Complete Streets' for urban living

Even if it isn't, a solid bloc of city officials, elected and staff, want to see even more done to tame Wauwatosa Avenue, including some more expensive measures like colored pavement at crosswalks and permanently mounted speed-reading signs.

The infamous crosswalk at Wright now runs at an angle, and it ought to be straightened, and thereby shortened. Traffic islands are a possibility, as well.

All of it would be modeled on a national movement, championed here most by Ald. Wilke, called "Complete Streets."

These are rethought routes that emphasize not just amenability to the automobile but to all the many uses and users of a modern urban community.

The DOT welcomes the idea for Wauwatosa Avenue, and could be persuaded to help there and possibly on other state highway routes.

"We would be receptive to that, yes," said Pierce of the DOT. "With the coming work on the Zoo Interchange, there may be more traffic and craziness.

"One-eighty-one is what we call a connecting highway. Even though it seems far afield from the Zoo Interchange, there may be diverted traffic, people seeking alternative routes.

"We'll be looking at the impacts," she said, "and we have funds to help mediate those areas of concern."

Cindy August 18, 2012 at 03:42 PM
It's about time. Dropping off a child at the middle school can be confusing - I do it daily during school year. Lanes need to be defined - especially in a school zones. Happy to see the improvements. Also - start paying attention to those chicane markings - geezzz does it have to be right in your face!!!!!
Cindy August 18, 2012 at 03:44 PM
for the safety of our kids - please start paying attention
J. Reesar August 18, 2012 at 04:30 PM
Nice to see a proactive, productive City Council. Thanks to all who made this happen!!
Jim Price August 18, 2012 at 08:30 PM
In fairness to them, and as noted in the story, a number of aldermen including, but not limited to, Pantuso, Roznowski and Wilke, and also officials including City Administrator Jim Archambo and DPW Director Bill Porter, had been working diligently toward addressing school zone safety problems not only on Wauwatosa Avenue but throughout the city. Traffic studies of a number of areas including this one were being carried out, some in conjunction with the School District. What Joel Tilleson did, rather brilliantly we now all agree, was to jump ahead of the studies and the normal government channels, pick up the phone and call the top guy in the DOT and say, "Hey, this is a mess! Can we fix it, like now?" And they said, "Sure, you can, you should, and we'll help you get it done." I think that what he has also accomplished in doing so is to have inspired and steeled the whole of City Hall to just push and push to solve this problem. I hope you will click the link in the story following Ald. Roznowski's name and find out the amazing things that he has done with parent Sarah Lebrand and Principal Mark Carter to help the McKinley Elementary School community to improve school area safety.
Random Blog Commenter August 20, 2012 at 05:45 PM
I commend Ald. Tillerson for taking a common sense approach -- asking the folks who "own" the road -- to what really was a pretty simple solution -- painting some lines. Common sense solutions appear to get lost when the goal becomes the planning process and the completion of a study/plan, rather than the issue that the study purports to address. That, of course, does not mean that one abandons a rational planning process, such things can be of tremendous use. However, our city officials both elected and professional need to not be slaves to the planning and established process mentality and not let their egos get in the way if people want to try something that doesn't match the "established" plan that they helped create.


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