Tear Down Another Freeway in Milwaukee?
The debate over the reconstruction of the Hoan Bridge is one that has ignited controversy in Milwaukee for almost a full year now. Southsiders under the direction of Supervisor Patricia Jursik have united around the Save the Hoan Coalition. Meanwhile, Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman has presented a differing vision for the future of the Hoan with eight principles that should be followed in any reconstruction effort. There is an awful lot of confusion around the issue, and the manner in which WisDOT has handled it is far from their usual course. This article examines the potential source of the debate, and a potential outcome that is a win-win scenario for both the City of Milwaukee taxbase, and southside and suburban commuters.
Before considering the merits of either proposal, it’s important to understand why and how the debate started in the first place. On August 22nd, 2008, The Business Journal of Milwaukee floated a trial balloon for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) quoting Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi discussing the feasibility of tearing down the bridge. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was quick to follow with more attention to the issue, including react quotes from south side politicians.
Why did WisDOT broach the issue in such a way? Proposing eliminating a part of the interstate system isn’t exactly business as usual for WisDOT. The department has lead a $810 million reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange, is in process spending $1.9 billion expanding and rebuilding I-94 to the state line, and is lining up plans to expand the Zoo Interchange at a potential cost of $2.3 billion. Par for the course for WisDOT would be expanding the capacity of the bridge, adding off-ramps, and spending more than the project before. Eliminating a section of a federally-designated Interstate highway just isn’t a plan that would likely emerge from WisDOT, let alone one that they would float as a trial balloon.
So where did the discussion truly originate? The United States Department of Transportation. The only logical scenario is that the federal transportation department has informed WisDOT that they wish to remove the federal designation from the bridge. One would presume that the facts that the bridge needs to be redecked and that interstate-level federal support won’t be available to financially support the redecking would spur one into proposing different ideas that would reduce the total lifetime cost of the highway. If the federal government really is looking to remove the designation, WisDOT’s search for options seems rational.
Why would the U.S. DOT’s Federal Highway Administration look to remove that interstate designation? Perhaps because traffic counts are too low at 40,000 vehicles per day. Maybe because they’re looking to remove spurs as a way to save money. It’s possible that the FHWA is merely looking to reduce the total mileage of the system as a way to save money, especially with sections that are due to be reconstructed soon. It’s also possible that Wisconsin, by funding the Lake Park Highway has shown a willingness to fund the stub, and the FHWA is just looking to save money by giving Wisconsin the rest of the stretch from the Marquette Interchange. I don’t have an exact answer, but all signs point to a behind-the-scenes force prompting WisDOT’s action on the Hoan Bridge.
How is WisDOT handling this? It would appear they’re content to let groups in Milwaukee fight it out, perhaps in hopes of raising some funds for any necessary work from the city of Milwaukee in TIF dollars or another form. They’ve committed to studying the process, commissioning HNTB to conduct the study.
What Could Be Gained?
Reconfiguring the North End of the Hoan Bridge
The north end of Interstate 794 as it turns to head west towards the Marquette Interchange occupies some of the most expensive real estate in the city. Development on the north end of the bridge hasn’t been inhibited as much by the bridge itself as it by the overbuilt ramps that are part of the partially completed Lake Interchange that was designed when the Lake Freeway was planned to continue up the lakefront and connect with the Park East Freeway.
The Lake Interchange simply isn’t needed anymore (nor was it ever), and a solution that encompasses the needs of southside commuters and Milwaukee. The Third Ward and East Town contain undoubtedly the most expensive office space in the city. It’s no wonder that residents to the south want to protect the Hoan, it ensures access to the highest paying jobs in the city outside of Miller Park and the Bradley Center. It’s time to look at reconfiguring the bridge as a way to connect residents to those jobs (and to the countless nearby cultural amenities), and as a way to grow the availability of jobs and amenities at the north end of the Hoan.
How can that be done? Simply land the bridge earlier. Currently the bridge comes down to ground level at Michigan Street. If possible from an engineering perspective, leaving the iconic, existing bridge in place and dropping the ramp at a faster rate would yield these savings without the sacrifice of any buildings or stages at the Maier Festival Park. It would likewise not noticeably lengthen the southside to downtown commute. Drivers that use the Hoan would still have quick access to downtown over largely the same bridge, but would enter a reconfigured street grid that would diffuse them to their downtown destination.
Lowering Interstate 794 from the Milwaukee River to the east with a smooth-flowing street-level boulevard would finally unite East Town with the Third Ward. This would open the land inbetween to development with stunning lake views, and logically unite the Milwaukee Art Museum and Discovery World with the boutique-laden Third Ward. Furthermore, building an lower and more attractive bridge would further encourage development near the western reclaimed lane, which unlike the other reclaimed land would be deprived of a lakeview. Depending on how far south the Hoan Bridge can be landed, up to 500,00 square feet of land could be opened for development. Chicago Street probably represents the most opportunistic position, with St. Paul Avenue being the easiest position outside of a reconfigured Michigan St.
What About the Park East Issues?
This land is far more valuable than the reclaimed land from the Park East Freeway based on location alone. It’s closer to the lake, and inbetween two economically healthy neighborhoods. To compare the potential of a development like this to the Park East is borderline apples to oranges. Projects like the canceled Palomar hotel and condo development would certainly happen in the land made available between the Third Ward and East Town, likely without any public financial assistance. One of the same challenges that faces the Park East unfortunately rears its head with Milwaukee County being the land holder, but with a better plan from the start the City of Milwaukee Department of City Development can be put in charge of managing the land sales.
What’s The Result?
At the end of the day, as the above illustration shows, access is still ensured to downtown via 794 and the Hoan Bridge. Provided the configuration can be made to work, the iconic bridge that people have come to know and love is preserved, and it’s still very easy to get from the southern suburbs and Bay View into downtown. Nothing that prevents access from the southside to downtown. Worst-case scenario is a slightly lower Hoan that maintains the same look and feel as the previous bridge, yet comes to the ground quicker than the current bridge. The only traveler affected is the one looking to use Interstate 794 from the southern suburbs to head west to Waukesha and beyond, they would have to instead start their journey heading west to get on I-94, an extremely minor inconvenience. The plan blends the desires of the Save the Hoan coalition and Alderman Robert Bauman. The benefit? More than 500,000 square feet of new land for development, and a more attractive and interconnected lakefront. Nothing to sneeze at when it comes to developing a healthier Milwaukee.