State Street (copy)

Tuesday marked the first night of deliberations over amendments to the city's 2022 budget.

The Madison City Council heard from the public Tuesday night as it prepares to consider this week whether to change the proposed route for the city's future bus rapid transit line.

Tuesday marked the first night of deliberations over amendments to the city's 2022 budget. The council is set to reconvene at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, and again Thursday if needed. 

On the agenda is an amendment that would require city staff to develop an alternative route running along the outer loop of the Capitol Square and away from State Street. The amendment would also give the council final approval of all BRT routes and modifications to non-BRT routes.

If approved, the amendment is expected to delay the project by at least a year and add $5 million to the cost due to inflation. It was introduced by Council President Syed Abbas, District 12, and Alds. Sheri Carter, District 14; Barbara Harrington-McKinney, District 1; Charles Myadze, District 18, and Mike Verveer, District 4.

Bus rapid transit is a priority of Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and her administration. The federal government also set aside $80 million for the project, making Madison one of six BRT projects recommended for funding next year.

The $160 million project that will run from the east side of the city to the west aims to provide faster, higher-capacity and limited-stop service using 60-foot-long buses on city streets and dedicated lanes.

Advocates of the current proposal argue it will spur economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic, while critics worry stops on State Street will harm its future. 

Testimony from the public on Tuesday was mixed.

Downtown Madison, Inc. President Jason Ilstrup said the organization believes BRT is important to the community, but argued the current proposed route could impede growth and improvements to State Street and urged passage of the amendment.

"People’s understanding of public space has changed (during the pandemic)," Illstrup said. "Take a look at the very successful 'streatery' program that all of you have helped usher in. … We can think bigger about State Street — Wisconsin's Main Street — and what can happen. We can see more nights like we saw at the Madison Night Market, more nights like we saw at the Mad Lit festival."

The city "should not fear what a small delay would do," said Betty Harris Custer.

"Some have insinuated that if one does not support BRT as proposed, you do not support the marginalized. That is absurd and offensive," said Roberta Gassman. "This is about running a real-life city recovering from COVID, and not in a transportation-only silo. This is about building upon the hard work done strategically over decades, turning our shuttered, empty downtown into a place for all."

But Chris McCahill voiced concerns that delaying the project could ultimately kill it entirely.

McCahill argued it's "unlikely we could find consensus around a different route while still being eligible for federal funds."

Tyson Vitale also opposed a delay over "petty issues," adding that the city has talked too long about improving public transit without taking action.

Also on Tuesday, the council approved an amendment allowing the transfer of $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds from the hotels converted to housing capital project to the Community Development Division. 

In September, the city announced a project to convert hotels into affordable housing. The amendment would transfer some, but not all, of the money from that project to the CDD. The CDD would then use that money to contract with Focus Counseling, Inc., to provide hotel sheltering beginning around Dec. 1.

The projects are part of a larger city plan to address homelessness with a mix of options, including hotel conversions, hotel room stays, tiny villages, an overnight men’s shelter on First Street, and a shelter for women and families in the old Karmenta Nursing Home at 4502 Milwaukee St.

The measure was approved unanimously.

Nicholas Garton contributed to this report.

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