One September night, Ald. Mark Clear decided to conduct an experiment. He biked home on the Southwest Commuter Path, even though it was out of his way. He purposely had no bike light. It proved too dark a ride for him.
"That convinced me both that lights were needed, and that the type of fixture that's being recommended is going to have minimal effect on the neighbors," he says.
Wisconsin law requires that bikers use lights at night, but people often ignore the law and some lights are not strong enough to help much in the dark. As a result, city staff and bike advocates have been pushing for lights to be installed on the Southwest Commuter Path, which runs, in part, north of and parallel to Monroe Street.
But not all path users like the idea and neighbors, in particular, are opposed.
Public meetings last December and this past summer drew crowds on both sides of the issue. Clear and other alders recently revived the issue by introducing a resolution to move the project forward. On Nov. 28, the Board of Public Works and the Pedestrian, Bicycle & Motor Vehicle Commission are hosting a joint public hearing (PDF) on the project.
Tester lights -- 20-foot-tall LED fixtures -- were designed by the city's Traffic Engineering Division and installed in two locations on the path. They are adjusted to avoid spilling light into adjacent yards, one of the main concerns of neighbors.
Former Ald. Ken Golden, whose home backs up to the path, lives near one of the tester lights. He finds them unobtrusive and supports the project, noting that the Southwest path is the only bike path in the city that remains unlit.
Ald. Sue Ellingson says this type of project would normally be "routinely approved," but says she has received a lot of negative feedback about the lights from her constituents.
"I think there should be lights. It is a heavily used transportation corridor," says Ellingson. But she says she will vote against them because a majority of her district opposes the project. "I'm elected to represent them, so I've decided to vote against it."
Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, one of four alders whose district abuts or crosses the commuter path, says she plans to join Ellingson in voting against it. But Ald. Brian Solomon, whose district encompasses part of the path, is one of seven co-sponsors of the resolution, along with Clear.
The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin supports the project. The group conducted a survey this summer completed by more than 450 members in Madison and 70% were in favor of lighting the path.
The group says that 3,000 bikers use the path every day, though the city's count ranges from about 200 to 2,000, depending on the season.
"Bike paths are safer places when they are well lit," says Amanda White, associate director of the Federation. "We've definitely heard stories from folks who have had collisions or near misses on the path."
But Perry Sandstrom, a member of the Southwest Path Alliance, argues that the test lights -- which are same lights being proposed for the length of the path -- blind bikers as they ride from dark to overly bright stretches of path. He's not alone in this belief.
In an online discussion following a Bicycle Federation statement about the lighting plans, Mike Libby wrote: "... the concerns of the neighbors [about light spillage are] more than addressed by the ... shielding provided. However, I believe the fixtures chosen are much too harsh for the cyclists using the path."
Sandstrom worries that the debate focused too much on a divide between bikers and the interests of people living directly along the path, the so-called NIMBYs -- "Not-In-My-Back-Yard" opponents. And he admits the project "looks like a win for biking."
"Most of the people that live in this neighborhood ... are against this lighting, and almost everyone that's seen it that I've talked to is against it," he says. "Most people haven't seen it."
While discussing the path over the phone, Sandstrom sighted two Pileated woodpeckers. He worries that the lighting would chase away local owls and other wildlife who nest in the area (see lighting opponents' Facebook page for OWLPATH, which stands for "Outdoors Without Light Pollution Adulterating the Heavens").
Clear takes a more pragmatic view. "I think the effects on wildlife will be very minimal. And this is not a nature preserve; it's a transportation corridor."
But to Sandstrom and other opponents of path lighting the Southwest Commuter Path is special. Trail users can see stars at night, and Sandstrom says it feels like a piece of country in the middle of the city.
"It's beautiful," he says. "It is not unsafe. Could it be made safer with better lighting? Yes."
Sandstrom and others in the Southwest Path Alliance oppose the 20-foot tall lights in the current plan, but not lighting in general. He suggests waist-high light fixtures that direct pools of soft light onto the path. Lower path lights would minimize light pollution for wildlife and star gazing while illuminating the path for pedestrians and bikers without causing temporary night-blindness, says Sandstrom.
Local teacher Susan Robinson echoes those thoughts.
"I feel the city has not seriously considered simpler, less expensive options to address the perceived safety issue (like reflective striping on the sides of the path, low, minimal lighting at path intersections or access points, repainting the center stripe)," she said in an email.
Sandstrom adds that it doesn't make sense for the city to push such a controversial project at a time when city services are getting squeezed by budget pressures.
The project is slated to cost over $250,000. Bidar-Sielaff thinks the city should table this idea in favor of more popular bike and pedestrian projects.
"Given how controversial it is, it's not something to push through at this time," she says. She'd like to see the city consider other options for lighting, or wait a few years for better options to develop.
After their public hearing, the Board of Public Works and the Pedestrian, Bicycle & Motor Vehicle Commission will each recommend whether or not to proceed with the project. If both panels support the project, the Common Council could take it up as early as December 11. If approved, lights would be installed in the spring.
The Southwest Path Alliance is preparing for the upcoming hearing. Sandstrom says the group began circulating a petition against the project on November 17 and already has a few hundred signatures.
For Scott Coon, who opposes the proposed lights, the stakes are high. He calls the path a "wondrous adventure and [a] natural asset."
"If we mess this up," he wrote in an email, "It'll be lost forever."
[Editor's note: The spelling of Pileated Woodpecker has been corrected.]