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Thomas Lynch

Thomas Lynch, Madison's director of transportation, on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Lynch, the first person to hold the position in roughly three decades, says Madison needs to move from being a "big little city" to a "little big city."

After a 26-year career at one of Madison’s most prominent engineering firms, Thomas Lynch changed employers last year to become the city’s first director of transportation in nearly three decades.

Lynch, 56, now oversees a department that includes the Transit, Traffic Engineering and Parking divisions, placing him at the epicenter of planning efforts for a growing city with a thriving economy and mounting transportation demands.

Born in San Francisco, he spent his early years there before his family moved to the East Bay community of Walnut Creek, California. Lynch grew up taking the bus, had a typical upbringing with two brothers and was deeply involved in competitive swimming and water polo.

He played varsity water polo and earned a bachelor’s of science in construction engineering from the School of Architecture at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and had summer jobs working for contractors on road, highway and bike path projects.

From 1988 to 1992, he worked as a civil engineer at Eastern Illinois University, and commuted to the University of Illinois, where he earned a second bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering. During that time, he also worked at a campus church ministry and met his wife, Melody. They now have a son and three daughters between the ages of 19 and 28.

Early on, Lynch wanted to run a contracting company focusing on transportation infrastructure, but his goals evolved as he got opportunities to design airports and highways. “I enjoyed the puzzle that design challenges posed,” he said.

After earning his second degree, Lynch and his wife drew a five-hour circle around both of their parents’ homes in the Bay area and Faribault, Minnesota, and he applied to engineering companies within the two circles.

The first offer came from Strand Associates, where he began in 1992 and worked until last year. There, he oversaw $25 million in transportation planning services for local, regional and state governments that resulted in a half-billion dollars in public investment. His Verona interchange design won 12 statewide awards and was named best project in North America for 2017 by Roads and Bridges magazine, and his Monona Drive reconstruction won five state awards.

For leisure, Lynch has done multiple triathlons, including the Ironman, and he and his wife enjoy biking, backpacking, and canoeing in the boundary waters.

Was it hard to leave Strand Associates?

It was very tough. Strand treated me very well and I’m grateful to them. But this presented a new set of challenges that were intriguing. It’s also a chance to give back.

What are the city’s biggest challenges with transportation?

The transportation system that got us to where we are cannot take us to where we are going. We no longer have opportunities to increase motor vehicle capacity — we cannot add lanes to East Washington or University avenues, or Park Street. Therefore, transit, biking and walking will need to fill a greater role in serving the 45,000 jobs Madison is projected to add in the next 30 years.

There are significant challenges in having our transit system serve all residents well. If you don’t have a job in the Isthmus, it is likely you will have to transfer at least once. This often can have a greater effect on our communities of color.

Metropolitan areas that invested in their transit, bicycle and pedestrian backbones years ago are now reaping the benefits. The Twin Cities is a good example — they made very difficult choices 20 years ago — but that investment has allowed them to prosper. If we don’t make the investment in transit and other modes, now — then when? It won’t be easier 10 years from now.

How is the city addressing challenges?

First — Madison is doing well. We’ve invested in transit, bike and pedestrian facilities in greater measures than our peers. That being said, there is still room for improvement. Right now we are looking at putting together a transit package. Later this year, or early next year, I would like to see us build on the city’s safety program. We have limited options to address motor vehicle capacity, but there are measures we can implement to improve motor vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian safety.

How can the growing city handle traffic and parking demands?

We can’t. There are 10,000 public and private parking spaces in our Isthmus. For us to handle the anticipated job growth we would need to double that number. That is why it is so important for us to invest in transit. Madison needs to move from being a big little city, to a little big city.

What are the coming big projects?

A lot of this depends on our elected officials and how they establish priorities. The city has $80 million in infrastructure needs. I hope to see a transit package that includes Bus Rapid Transit, a satellite bus barn, intercity bus terminal, park-and-rides, electric buses and improved service frequency. There are also several corridor studies in progress or on deck that will lead to projects. These include Bassett Street, Wilson Street and soon Schenk’s Corners.

How will the city pay for it all?

That’s what I’m working on.

“Transit, biking and walking will need to fill a greater role in serving the 45,000 jobs Madison is projected to add in the next 30 years.” Thomas Lynch, Madison’s director of transportation

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Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.