Three Bold Ideas for State Street

the city is talking about roundabouts, but we can try something even wilder

Laura Buchholz

State Street will likely be closed for a time next summer and fall, and the time to start making your contingency plans is now. As a homeowner on the majestic artery itself, the thought of State Street torn up for months, or devoid of the constant hum and whish of traffic, is hard to fathom. The idea that State Street could potentially shrink back down to two lanes, a look it hasn’t sported in decades, is both a thrill and a puzzle. Could this even work? And how? 

I’m curious. So I recently attended one of the early informational meetings about the State Street project. The meeting was impressively well-attended by concerned persons of a certain age straining to hear the soft-spoken microphone-free speaker. The speaker showed us a variety of traffic-calming options: roundabouts, right-in-right-out barriers, four-way stops, traffic lights, raised pedestrian corridors. He mentioned widening the sidewalks, adding shelters for public transportation stops, inserting bike lanes, planting boulevard trees, adjusting street lights. Cool.

As locals are well aware, State is a vital street that connects the south side with downtown, the university, the YMCA, and The Pickle. So we have to get it right. Nothing has been decided yet, although the amount of time devoted to roundabout talk seemed telling. Still, I wonder if the city has really considered all of its options for this busy and essential artery. In the interest of public input, might we consider a few more options? For example, we could:

1. Make State Street into a canal.

Hire students to paddle people in gondolas to the downtown area, where other people on pedicabs could pick them up and take them to their destination. Obviously, Venice is the inspiration here. The canal model would both significantly slow traffic on the lower part of State, and also help alleviate the parking problem downtown. Don’t ask me where people are supposed to park their cars before getting into the gondolas because that’s not my problem. Note: If we find the funds, State Street hill itself could become a waterslide.

2. Let the entire street revert to prairie grass.

This is an option growing in popularity with certain enlightened homeowners who like butterflies and don’t like mowing. Why not try it on a main thoroughfare? Pros: 1. Prairies are pretty, and wildflowers are nice to look at. 2. No expenditure required. 3. No traffic allowed, the ultimate traffic-calming solution. Cons: 1. Ticks. 2. Will take a long time for the prairie to re-establish. 3. No access for emergency vehicles or really any vehicles. 4. Pointless.

3. Zip line.

Think about it. If you’re coming down State Street hill on a zip line, you gather all the momentum you need to shoot you all the way past the university, around the corner to Washington Street all the way to Farwell if you want. It’s a fun and fast solution to traffic congestion. It’s also a bonus for homeowners along State, who can enjoy their morning coffee while seeing people fly by at high speeds high enough off the ground where pedestrians won’t be at risk. Again, this solves some of the parking issues downtown, and as a bonus, people get a little bit of exercise, or at the very least, an adrenaline surge that can replace their morning cup of coffee. And that saves money! Now, what about people going the other way, UP the hill, you say? Why don’t you mind your own business.

I have confidence that the city’s team will deliver something good. But now is the time for an open and civil dialogue about possibilities. Eau Claire is in the midst of a renaissance, so I say let’s really make it count! This is our opportunity to show the rest of Wisconsin and the world that we are capable of thinking outside the box! And not just a shoebox, but a really really big box, like the kind a refrigerator comes in.

Also I just want a zip line outside my house.

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