Freeing up the freeway: Wisconsin DOT adds ‘flex lane’ to the Beltline

Traffic moves along HWY 12 in Madison
Traffic moves along HWY 12 in Madison(Jeremy Nichols/Andy Gay)
Published: Apr. 19, 2021 at 9:30 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Madison is about to experience life in the “flex lane.”

If you live in the Madison area, chances are you have driven through the recent construction on the Beltline, that is a first-of-its-kind in Wisconsin.

It is called a ‘Flex Lane,’ and it is designed to make your commute shorter.

Dane County Sheriff’s Deputy, Eric Novotny has patrolled Highway 12 for nearly 20 years. The man known as “Beltline Bob” has seen a lot of changes during that time.

“When I started on the Beltline, the peak traffic was 87,000 cars [per day],” Novotny said. “[Now’] we’re up to 136,000 and it’s not going to go down any time soon.”

After seeing at this data, Wisconsin’s Dept. of Transportation (DOT) looked for ways to increase the flow of traffic along Highways 12 and 18, stretching from Whitney Way to the interstate.

“So, the Department of Transportation is limited because the roadway is a landlocked roadway, we can’t expand outward and we can’t build on top of it,” Novotny said.

The Wisconsin DOT decided the best solution was something called a “Flex Lane” or “Flex Route.”

Adding a fourth lane to what they already have, on both the eastbound and westbound lanes of the highway.

An explanation of the Flex Lane Project and what it means for drivers
An explanation of the Flex Lane Project and what it means for drivers(Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation)
An explanation of the additional part-time lane
An explanation of the additional part-time lane(Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation)

This shoulder lane won’t be blocked off, but drivers will only be allowed to use it during peak traffic times, incidents like crashes, or special events like badger football games.

An informational video from the DOT says, “Dynamic messaging will be installed to indicate when the flex lane will be open, the display shows a green downward arrow when the flex lane is open.”

If you use the flex lane when the sign above says it is not in use, you’ll receive a ticket. Novotny says using the flex lane when it is closed will be considered “failure to obey an officer sign or signal,” but he expects the DOT to come up with a more specific citation for that infraction when construction is completed.

Recent data from Wisconsin DOT shows at least 17 other states use this concept. Michigan found success with a similar highway project. Wisconsin has been working for three years with Michigan Dept. of Transportation engineer Stephanie Palmer.

“I would say it’s useful because it gets you to where you need to go without all of the community impacts,” Palmer said.

Palmer said the US-23 project in Ann Arbor cut drivers’ commute time along their 8.5-mile corridor down from 22 minutes to 10 minutes.

“I think drivers are saying ‘I don’t want to get stuck in this congestion’ or ‘I need to get around this incident’ that’s the solution we’re trying to provide,” Palmer said.

Wisconsin hopes to find the same success.

“The volume of traffic will only increase it will never decrease. If we do nothing with this roadway, it would be more detrimental to us,” Novotny said.

Wisconsin DOT expects complete construction in December 2021, and will likely open in late 2021 or early 2022.

The Flex Lane Project comes with a price tag of about $45 million. It is being paid for by state and federal funds.

Novotny also said that building a flex lane is better on the environment, and much more cost-effective in the long run.

CORRECTION: This article previously stated that this project would be completed and open by fall of 2021.

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