Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Businesses Are Attacking The State’s Freeway Plan

By - Sep 12th, 2001 07:28 am
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The Wisconsin Department of Transportation‘s latest freeway project could “virtually suffocate downtown Milwaukee,” a letter from the Downtown Business Improvement District complains. The letter was co-written by Tom Bernacchi, an executive with Towne Realty, and Gary Grunau, head of Grunau Project Development, two members of the group’s board of directors. They blast the state department for its “insensitivity” and “very cavalier” style of communicating with the city’s business leaders.

The project in question would do resurfacing and bridge repairs for a 3.5-mile stretch of I-43 from North Avenue north to Lexington Boulevard (near the Bavarian Inn) and for a 4.9 mile stretch between National Avenue and the Mitchell Interchange (near the airport).

A recent letter from WISDOT predicts the project “will reduce freeway capacity by one-third…In order to reduce congestion to manageable levels, the number of vehicles using the corridor must be reduced by up to 40% during peak hours.”

Grunau’s group felt blindsided by the letter. “This was dropped on us as a sort of brick on our head,” Grunau complains.

“The Governor boasts of the open public process in which state projects are conducted,” the business group’s letter complains. “We ask, is this letter an effort to promote community, civic and business buy-in for that process? If it is, we’re not buying it and neither will the balance of the business community.”

But not everyone in the business community agrees. The latest freeway project “has been known about for years,” says Pete Beitzel of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. Beitzel says the Department of Transportation has been methodically redoing each part of the Milwaukee freeway system starting with the I-94 west of downtown, then with Highway 45 and now with I-43. The goal is to make sure the system is as strong as possible when the Marquette Interchange is torn down, “so there are no bottlenecks” elsewhere in the system, he adds.

Beitzel says Grunau and others simply weren’t paying attention. “There are some people that are apparently misinformed. If there’s any blame on I-43, it’s that the community doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on.”

Beitzel says WISDOT has been trying hard to work cooperatively with Milwaukee and the letter from Grunau’s group won’t help things. “I can’t believe somebody would write a letter like that. I can’t believe it was written in that tone. It’s a bad letter. That’s not responsible.”

City Engineer Jeff Polenske says, “we knew the project was coming,” but adds that WISDOT has done a poor job of communicating this to downtown business leaders. He criticizes the state’s letter. “We were equally surprised [by the state’s letter] as the [downtown] property owners. That letter was not written properly. We would hope they would go to the property owners first, to clearly state that here are the alternatives and the accommodations we suggest.”

In fact, Polenske says, the project will require nowhere near the 40 percent reduction in traffic the state predicts. “On the north side [of I-43] they’re not planning to do any work during the peak hours.” Because the work will be done at night, there will be no impact on rush hours.

On the south side, he says, the city will divert traffic to I-794. And unlike the past construction on I-94, where the traffic flows almost equally in both directions during rush hours, the traffic on I-43 tends to go mostly in one direction, which makes it easier to close off some lanes. “If it’s done right, we can accommodate that traffic.”

In years past, there have been chronic complaints that WISDOT did not communicate or consult with Milwaukee regarding its transportation plans. But many Milwaukee representatives have praised the department for its handling of the Marquette Interchange project. “We have publicly praised your Department consistently throughout this process,” Grunau’s letter noted. “Perhaps our efforts to build a strong working relationship with your Department were in vain.”

Ironically, WISDOT appears to have put considerable thought into the letter it sent to business leaders, which is dressed up with a skyline of Milwaukee and the tagline, “ONE OF MILWAUKEE’S MOST POPULAR PERFORMERS IS GETTING A FACELIFT.” The department might have been better off spending less time on image making and more time on communicating with business leaders.

“I think there’s just been a breakdown of communication,” Grunau says. “We’ve asked for a meeting in the next week to ten days.”

“I would hope [WISDOT’s representatives] are going to be coming to that meeting very well prepared,” says Polenske.

Short Takes

Capitol Times columnist John Nichols has been touting state Sen. Bob Welch (R-Redgranite) for governor. Nichols is the sort of ultra-liberal who defended Ralph Nader‘s run for president, so the journalist is a cinch not to vote for Welch. Rather, he doubtless thinks an archconservative would be easier for the Democrats to beat than a mushy moderate Republican like Scott McCallum. Even if Welch lost the primary (which is quite likely), he could pull McCallum to the right, which would be good for Democrats. Actually, conservative Republicans would like that, too. My guess is there will be no challenge to McCallum, who looks a bit shaky, but not vulnerable enough for Republicans to risk dividing the party.

Meanwhile, the campaign people for Attorney General Jim Doyle are distributing literature showing how well he did in his last three statewide runs, particularly in the 16 largest counties accounting for 76 percent of Democratic primary voters. None of his opponents have ever run a statewide race. Then there are Doyle’s endorsements, including former Democratic governors Gaylord Nelson, Patrick Lucey and Martin Schreiber. Ah, but what happened to Tony Earl? Is it possible the bearded ex-governor will back the mustachioed Tom Barrett? “We’re going for the whole facial hair group,” Barrett spokesperson George Twig says. But so far, Earl remains elusive.

Many see Barrett as a shoo-in to run for mayor in 2004, should Doyle prevail in the gubernatorial primary. Considering that half the city is in Barrett’s district, he would be a far stronger challenger to John Norquist (should he run for re-election) than any alderman. Norquist, who is reportedly lukewarm about Barrett’s run for governor, might want to support him to get rid of a possible opponent.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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