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Unsafe Stretch of Wauwatosa Avenue to Be Lane-Striped

In wake of school-crossing accident, avenue between North and Center will get parking lane and bike lane stripes, ending legal passing on the right.

"We have a tendency to build our streets like highways," a traffic consultant told city officials and the public Tuesday night.

On few stretches of public street is that more true than on part of Wauwatosa Avenue north of North Avenue.

Variously described as "a free-for-all," "the Autobahn" and, simply, "a nightmare," Wauwatosa Avenue from North Avenue to Center Street is wide and unmarked, with plenty of room for rushing commuters to make up their own lanes and the rules to go with them.

Those rules seldom respect other uses for public streets, including travel by bicycle and crossing on foot.

That's about to change, and soon, as aldermen and city staff have moved to do something about safety on the busy route before school starts Sept. 4.

With approval Tuesday from the Traffic and Safety Committee, most of the length of that stretch of road will get parking lanes inside bicycle lanes on both sides, both marked by solid white lines.

With that, the avenue will be clearly delineated as having only one lane of traffic in each direction – and it will become illegal to pass on the right.

In November, a Longfellow Middle School student suffered a severely fractured leg where Wright Street crosses Wauwatosa Avenue north of the school.

The driver said she thought the car stopped near the center line in front of her was waiting to turn left. It wasn't. It was stopped in front of a crossing guard who was ushering the boy across.

Except for her failure to see the guard or the boy, what the driver was doing was not illegal and is done by thousands of drivers daily on broad, unmarked streets throughout Wauwatosa.

Police Chief Barry Weber confirmed Wednesday morning that a statute (346.08 section 2) allows for passing on the right "Upon a street or highway with unobstructed pavement of sufficient width to enable 2 or more lines of vehicles lawfully to proceed at the same time, in the direction in which the passing vehicle is proceeding."

"So I would say it is permissible on that stretch of Wauwatosa Avenue," Weber said. But once there is a solid white line 12 feet from the center line, it won't be, he added.

The two 12-foot traffic lanes will be flanked by 5-foot bike lanes and 8-foot parking lanes on each side of the street, under the plan put forward by consultant Kenneth Voigt, senior traffic engineer with Ayres Associates of Waukesha and accepted by the city.

Bike lane and other traffic control signs should also be added to the stretch, Voigt said.

"Signs take precedence over painted lines," he said, which can fade or be snow-covered.

For now, the paint alone for that long a stretch will cost $10,000 – which in these lean times is no longer a gimme, even when children's safety is at stake.

But City Administrator Jim Archambo had an idea of how it could be paid for without touching contingency funds.

"Every year, we paint the 'chicanes' on North Avenue" through East Tosa, Archambo said. Skipping a year, "would pay for it."

Even though Archambo cautioned that not repainting lanes on North could lead to pretty drastic fading there, aldermen greeted the suggestion with approval bordering on glee – the swerving chicanes are roundly disliked, and the city's North Avenue Plan calls for doing away with them.

Aldermen on the committee enthusiastically supported both the lane-striping measure and the method of payment and approved it unanimously.

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To come: Wauwatosa Avenue as an example of the "Complete Streets" concept, and how the Wisconsin Department of Transportation helped make it happen.

greensheet August 02, 2012 at 02:46 AM
A total redesign of that area is in order. Restrict left turns off Wauwatosa Ave. during peak times! These people flirt with death daily, rather than drive a couple extra blocks. So force them! One more thing- How about some better overhead night lighting of the 76th and Milwaukee intersection? It looks like they have maybe two 100 watt bulbs out of a living room lamp at the present time.
jbw August 02, 2012 at 04:39 AM
I've walked through there all the time for many years. I guess it is dangerous, though I don't think people drive any more safely in the rest of the city from what I've experienced. There are certainly a lot of instances where people "pass on the right", or rather go into road rage at the prospect of waiting for a minute and slam down the gas and swerve to the right while burning rubber. I would say with 90% certainty that that behavior will not change one bit due to some extra paint on one length of road making it technically unlawful. How many drivers are even aware of that regulation?
jbw August 02, 2012 at 04:41 AM
The trees completely block the street lighting on much of North Ave every night, which has left me stumbling in the dark at times.
Betty August 02, 2012 at 02:00 PM
Now if they would only continue west on North Avenue from Wauwatosa Ave. and North Ave. Same deal. Is North Avenue heading west from the Library to 88th Street a two-lane road or single lane? People pass on the right all the time, then get stuck if there's a car parked on North Ave. Traffic at evening rush hour is a disaster.
John August 03, 2012 at 12:38 AM
This will help with those who follow the rules when they exist. But strict enforcement is required for it to actually make things safer. Now pedestrians will feel more sense of safety as they cross into the parking lane, so it will only take a few drivers to ignore rules before someone else gets hit. And a lot of people will not even know they can't pass on the right with the stripes there. I used to get annoyed with drivers using the bike/parking lane to pass me on the right on Center St. until one day a driver using the parking lane on Center to pass others hit the front of my car as I was sticking into the parking lane. I thought she was in the wrong for passing on the right, but my insurance said it was mostly my fault as I was considered crossing traffic and she driving with it. Anyway, so I guess I thought I had been wrong and the lines were just guides, but nothing enforceable. A lot of people probably think of the white lines as guides and if they are dashed near the crosswalk, it will make it even more ambiguous. Maybe the crossing guard can put up some cones in the parking lane during the time they are there to make it more obvious. If police consistently ticket "parking lane passers" here, some will learn. I'd still like to see better lights and signs, though.
Hank Reardon August 03, 2012 at 03:47 PM
My suggestion it to make N.76th Street one way going north, and North Ave one way going east.

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