Delay is no longer an option

If you’re old enough, you might remember when it was christened the “Bridge to Nowhere.” The Hoan Bridge began at a stub of an interchange (made famous in“The Blues Brothers”) and ended at Bay Street near some ramshackle houses and dive bars.

25 years later, the Hoan finally went somewhere as the Lake Parkway pushed its way from Bay St. to Layton Avenue, opening up a new direct route from the southeastern suburbs to downtown. But the bridge hasn’t had it easy. In 1999, girder fractures led to the demolition of the northbound lanes and reconstruction; soon after a hole opened on the bridge deck in the southbound lanes.

And now more nets are being added underneath the bridge to catch falling concrete.

As a backdrop to all the deterioration is the discussion about what should happen to the Hoan. With the addition of the parkway, the bridge has become an essential commuter route, but some government officials and developers see dollar signs and would like to raze the bridge, rerouting traffic to a surface street and adding a lift bridge over the harbor. They feel that by bringing the road down to grade, commercial and residential development will follow.

Opponents, led by south side aldermen and suburban officials, believe a lift bridge will cause traffic backups and that no one will want to build a condo next to Jones Island.

Whatever happens in the future with the Hoan, at present it’s falling into the harbor and something needs to be done now. However, this reality seems to be falling on deaf ears in the governor’s mansion and at Department of Transportation.

State Sen. Jeff Plale and State Rep. Christine Sinicki asked to divert $250 million from the $822 million earmarked for the Milwaukee to Madison high-speed train to repair of the bridge. Sinicki said diverting some of the train funding would delay the high-speed rail, but she feels the Hoan Bridge is a much higher transportation priority. “Chunks are coming off the bridge and people are worried,” Sinicki said. “We don’t want another situation like what happened in Minnesota.”

The politicians sent a letter to Rep. Gwen Moore, Sen. Herb Kohl and Rep. Dave Obey, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

Moore responded late Thursday, explaining that train funds cannot be diverted to other transportation projects since they are earmarked for that specific purpose. But she offered two other alternatives – applying for TIGER II funding or using additional transportation funds that the state received from the Federal Highway Commission.

“It’s my understanding that this about $100 million more than the state expected to receive. And as you know, it is up to you and other officials in Madison to decide how to direct this additional federal funding.”

Tom Barrett heard about those extra dollars too, and he’s lobbying Madison to divert them to the bridge.

DOT Executive Assistant Chris Klein said the $105 million in excess federal transportation funds have already been spoken for and none of it is directed to repairs for the Hoan. Most of the money, roughly $97.8 million, would be used to pay for current projects and free up state dollars for additional projects in the next fiscal year. He said the DOT will continue to look for options for the bridge while following a regular maintenance schedule.

We’re way past looking for other options while continuing regular maintenance on the Hoan. A symbol of Milwaukee since 1974, it’s a necessary thoroughfare easing traffic on Kinnickinnic Ave., South First Street and I-94. The Hoan carries 40,000 vehicles per day, traffic that would otherwise load onto the freeway or surface streets. If it is allowed to crumble any further, it will be rendered useless and we will either have a repeat of the Zoo Interchange emergency, or a stalemate with those who want it to stay in its current configuration and those who want a surface street.

For once, I agree with Sinicki that we need to get our priorities straight. We have a roadway that is both used and useful, transporting people and goods to Cudahy, St. Francis and Oak Creek where there is land for business expansion and home construction. The Hoan Bridge provides an unimpeded route to the south, unaffected by ships and boats entering the harbor. If you’ve ever tried to maneuver through the Third Ward during rush hour, you know how long of a wait it can be just to cross the bridge. That wait is not only time lost, but dollars.

The cries to get train dollars is a loser; we’ve been told again and again that the money is for the high-speed train, period. But the $105 million transportation windfall sets aside $20 million for southeast Wisconsin freeway improvements. Maybe we could forgo a few of those fancy, pressed concrete designs going up on the bridges on southbound 1-94 to make some needed repairs on the Hoan. And another $10 million could come from delaying highway development planning, also earmarked for the windfall.

Maybe Moore could look for more of our money in Washington and send it back to us for this necessary project, asopposed to the $600 million she voted for to make sure that television viewers in Washington D.C. received digital transformer boxes, the $212 million to demolish 35 laboratories in New Mexico or the $30 million for new training facilities for the Arizona Diamondback and Colorado Rockies.

It is a good thing that the politicians on the south side of Milwaukee, its southern neighbors and even Tom Barrett understand the importance of  the Hoan Bridge. Will our leaders in Madison come around before someone gets hurt?


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