The ultimate Madison dictionary

Madison and its local government can feel like it has its own language, especially if you are new to the city.

This dictionary of key terms, local projects, and phrases like “hairball intersection” will get you familiarized with Madison’s lexicon.

Rather than writing a giant alphabetical list, we've separated terms into categories.

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City operations‌

Local acronyms

Projects of note

First nations


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Madison City Hall is located at 215 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Photo by Hayley Sperling

City operations

Mayor: Madison’s mayor is the chief executive officer of the city and serves a four-year term. The mayor supervises and appoints city officers and heads of departments.

Common Council / City Council: The City Council, also known as the Common Council, is Madison’s elected legislative body. It’s made up of 20 alders who each represent a different district in the city and serve two-year terms.

Capital budget: Madison’s capital budget funds major projects like constructing new facilities, maintaining roads and parks, and buying major equipment.

Operating budget: Madison’s operating budget funds the day-to-day needs — employees, materials, and supplies — required to keep the city running.

Boards, committees, and commissions: Madison has 83 boards, committees, and commissions that help guide legislation in the city. Boards and commissions have some independent power to make decisions on behalf of the city while committees are generally limited to making recommendations or reports to the mayor or City Council.

Alcohol License Review Committee (ALRC): This committee is responsible for reviewing all alcohol license applications, addressing violations, and developing policies related to alcohol.

Finance Committee: This committee makes recommendations on changes to the city’s budget and other issues with fiscal implications. The Finance Committee makes and submits a proposed budget to City Council on or before Nov. 15 of each year.

Landmarks Commission: This commission is responsible for designating and maintaining  landmarks and historic districts in Madison that represent the city’s cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history.

Plan Commission: The Plan Commission’s responsibilities include making a master plan for the physical development of the city, and reviewing decisions regarding sale or lease of land, rezoning requests, and land annexations. The commission makes the final decision on land divisions, conditional use requests, and appeals for certain Urban Design Commission decisions.    

Police Civilian Oversight Board: This board is independent from the Madison Police Department, responsible for hiring and overseeing the independent police monitor and works with the monitor’s office and the community to make recommendations on issues like police discipline and use of force.

Transportation Commission: This commission makes decisions on issues affecting transit (like bus fares and route changes), parking, pedestrians, bicycles and motor vehicles, and strategies to maximize travel choices.

Urban Design Commission (UDC): This commission is generally charged with assuring the “highest quality” of design for all public and private projects in Madison and the general appearance of buildings, structures, landscaping, and open areas. Commissioners review planned developments, residential building complexes, and public projects.

Local acronyms

BID: Madison's Central Business Improvement District (BID) is a type of taxing assessment district that gets funding from an additional tax on businesses. Its funds support programs like the Madison Night Market and public enhancements like holiday lights and planters. The district includes State Street from Park Street to the Capitol Square, and the Capitol Square area.

CARES: Madison’s Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (CARES) program is a mobile crisis response unit that responds to community behavioral health emergencies that don’t require an armed police response.

DMI: Downtown Madison, Inc. is a nonprofit advocacy and member-based organization that works to support downtown Madison.

MMSD: This acronym stands for Madison Metropolitan School District, which is the city’s public school system. (Sharing the same letters, this acronym can also refer to the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District.)

MSCR:  Madison School & Community Recreation provides enrichment activities like after-school programming, sports, and adult art classes to the Madison students and broader community.

RFP or RFB: Short for "request for proposal" and "request for bid." These are initial steps in a project that formally announces the project and outlines what is needed from a responding contractor.

TID: Short for tax incremental district, a TID is a geographic area within a municipality, like the city of Madison, created for development or rehabilitation.

TIF: Tax Incremental Financing (TIF), is a public financing tool that cities can use to encourage development opportunities and expand the future tax base. For example, TIF funding supported the Capitol East Parking Garage.

TOD: Transit-oriented development is centered around public transit, designed with pedestrians in mind, is compact, and typically includes a mix of housing, retail, and other amenities. Madison is encouraging this type of development along the future bus rapid transit (BRT) line through the use of a TOD overlay zoning district.

TDM: Transportation Demand Management is a policy that encourages strategies like public transit, carpooling, bicycling, walking, and telecommuting to reduce vehicle trips and promote alternatives to single occupant vehicles.  

WORT: W-O-R-T (89.9 FM) is Madison’s listener-sponsored community radio station that offers music, news, talk shows, and public affairs programming. The radio station broadcasts from 118 S. Bedford St. (you can’t miss the mural of musical instruments on the side of the building) and covers a 50-mile radius.

WSUM: W-S-U-M (91.7 FM) is the University of Wisconsin–Madison student-run community radio station.

Photo by Hayley Sperling

Projects of note

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT): The new transit system has been years in the making. Compared to Madison's current transportation system, BRT will travel in dedicated lanes with fewer stops but more frequent service.

Capital Improvement Plan: Madison’s Capital Improvement Plan outlines funding for the upcoming year and future investments over the following five years.

Hairball intersection: The infamous “hairball” intersection is located at John Nolen Drive, South Blair, East Wilson, and Williamson streets. The 2022 reconstruction project includes new left turn lanes and medians in addition to removing a problematic driveway in the hopes of untangling the intersection.

Jail consolidation project: The 1950s-era City-County Building jail has long been considered outdated and was recommended to close in 2016. This long-debated project would bring all jail facilities downtown, construct a new tower, and be the most expensive public works project in county history.

Judge Doyle Square (JDS): Judge Doyle Square is named after Judge James Doyle, who was a U.S. federal judge in Wisconsin. Its physical location consists of two blocks downtown that hold the Madison Municipal Building, East Wilson Street parking garage, and apartments. It’s a complex multi-million public-private development that has been in the works for over a decade.  

Madison Public Market: Expected to open in 2025 at the corner of First and East Johsnon streets, the year-round market will offer food and goods from local entrepreneurs. It will also house a food innovation business center to support the growth of small businesses.

Oscar Mayer: Built into the fabric of Madison’s northside, the former Oscar Mayer processing plant located to the west of Packers Avenue and south of Aberg Avenue is now guided by a special area plan that aims to connect the north and east side, add a mix of housing, create a public transit and bicycle hub, form a walkable commercial district, mixed-use area, and major employment corridor.

Vision Zero: The city launched Vision Zero Madison in 2020 as an effort to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries that occur on city streets by 2035. The initiative uses speed reduction, community engagement, data, and more to reach its goals.

Outline drawings of Madison-area burial mounds via City of Madison, illustration by Tone Madison.

First Nations

Burial and effigy mounds: These sacred, earthen monuments are concentrated in the Madison area and upper Midwest and were built as burial sites and for other purposes. They are protected by law, though many were destroyed as the city and university developed.

Dejope: Meaning “Four Lakes” in the Ho-Chunk language, the word recognizes the area’s four lakes — Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa — around which indigenous tribes lived long before the arrival of white settlers.

Ho-Chunk Nation: The Ho-Chunk are the first people to have lived in the Madison area, which is their ancestral home. The Ho-Chunk Nation has its own executive, legislative, and judicial government branches as a sovereign nation.

Check out all of the official Madison neighborhood associations.


East Wash corridor: The East Washington Avenue Capitol Gateway Corridor is a primary thoroughfare and eastern gateway into Madison. It is bounded by East Mifflin and East Main streets on the north and south and First and Blair streets to the east and west.

Monroe Street: Monroe Street on the city’s near west side is a historic, walkable commercial district that links Camp Randall, Lake Wingra and the Arboretum.

SASY: The acronym  stands for the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara neighborhood, which is bounded by East Washington Avenue on the north, Starkweather Creek on the east, Lake Monona on the south and the Yahara River on the west.

Tenney-Lapham: The Tenney-Lapham neighborhood on the Madison’s east isthmus is largely residential and marked by Lake Mendota on the north, the Yahara River on the east, East Washington Avenue on the south and North Blair Street on the west.

WIL-MAR: Short for Williamson Marquette, Wil-Mar is associated with the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center that has provided diverse programming for the community since 1968.

Willy Street: Short for Williamson Street, the Willy Street area is known for being eclectic and features a mix of housing, bars, restaurants, shops, and nonprofits. The neighborhood’s personality is on full display each September at the Willy Street Fair.

The "sides":Though there are no official boundaries for these areas, this is how Madison Minutes defines these geographic areas of Madison.

North side: Madison’s north side is located north of Lake Mendota and Highway 30. It includes neighborhoods such as Sherman, Carpenter Ridgeway, and North Lake Mendota.

South side: Madison’s south side falls below the West Beltline Highway. It includes neighborhoods such Bay Creek, Burr Oaks, Bram’s Addition, and Capitol View.

East side: Madison’s east side is east of the Capitol and south of Highway 30. It includes neighborhoods such as Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara, Tenney Lapham, Marquette, and Eastmorland.

West side: Madison’s west side is located west of the Capitol and generally north of the West Beltline Highway. It includes neighborhoods such as Regent, Dudgeon-Monroe, and University Hill Farms.