County Closes Lake Park Bridge
Abele administration cites safety concerns, seeks $2 million in private funds.
The Ravine Road Bridge in Milwaukee’s Lake Park is now locked up behind chain-link fencing—with plenty of drama swirling around it. The historic landmark was closed off December 9–possibly for years–“because the County cannot control the volume on the bridge,” according to a statement from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s office. County officials said, “While there is no immediate safety concern for normal day-to-day use… the County’s Engineering and Risk Management Departments made the recommendation to err on the side of caution and close the bridge as we lack operational control over large groups that could potentially overload the bridge.”
Those groups, however, would have to be fairly large. Teig Whaley-Smith, county director of administrative services, told the county board’s finance committee last week that the bridge was safe for “normal use”, but a huge crowd would be problematic. He defined a potentially unsafe gathering as “10 people per 10 square feet across the entire bridge.” That would total at least 1,180 people, since the bridge measures 118 feet by 10 feet. More recently, he clarified this statement to the board, to say that the engineer’s calculations show the bridge could hold up to 181 people. (See update below.)
But the county has not permitted special events on or across the bridge in the past 18 months, says Melissa Baldauff, Abele’s director of communications. So why the closure has come at this point is not clear. Baldauff says the decision was not based on changes in the bridge’s condition or Pokemon players in the park.
After safety concerns about the bridge were raised two years ago, Ravine Road beneath it was closed to vehicular traffic in December 2014. Additional barriers were installed last week at both ends of Ravine Road.
Temporarily closed in 2014, the deck reopened after thorough study, except for service vehicles. Monitoring of the bridge has been ongoing, says Baldauff.
Definitions of Safety
The decision to spend $7,000 for fencing was based on “a report prepared by the independent engineering consultants at GRAEF in July of 2015,” says Baldauff. She cites “confirmed assessments dating back to 1905 that the bridge cannot handle more than 30 psf [30 pounds of pressure per square foot].” However, county and Graef officials have repeatedly attested that the bridge is structurally sound, including the supporting arch.
Nonetheless, Sup. Sheldon Wasserman, who represents Lake Park’s neighborhood, expressed safety concerns: he cites GRAEF’s statement that the bridge “had run its life cycle and replacement should be considered.” However, Karl Stave, the county’s project director for the bridge, clarified that the report said the bridge “should either be rehabilitated or replaced” and that the county has been considering several options.
Bert Hartman, a bridge engineer with Oregon’s Department of Transportation, recognized nationally for its bridge program, says that closing a bridge “does not mean it is inherently unsafe or poses any imminent danger.” He adds that his department often “strengthens such bridges and reopens them.”
Bridge Could Be Demolished?
Wasserman says that if it appears park users are bypassing the fencing, he believes “the County will issue an immediate emergency demolition order.” He adds “if lives are at stake because of a bridge collapse, I would support an emergency order.”
County officials have repeatedly touted immediate demolition of the bridge. Last week Whaley-Smith pitched a “two-step process” to supervisors: First, tear down the bridge and then work on replacing it. At a public-information meeting in July, county landscape architect Kevin Haley proposed the same demolish-first/plan-later “compromise.” Outright demolition—without replacement–had already been presented as the “lowest-cost option.” Many neighbors and supporters of Lake Park have opposed both approaches while supporting rehabilitation or replacement with a reconstructed “replica.”
Some suspect the situation is being calculated to trigger a raze order, which the Abele administration denies. When asked if demolition is pending, Baldauff says, “At this point, the administration is prepared to move forward with [replacing the bridge] once the $2,000,000 is raised by the friends groups.”
Private Donations Sought
The Abele administration has projected a budget where $2 million of the bridge’s $2.5 million cost comes from private donors. According to his office: “The bridge will be closed to all traffic until a replacement or repair alternative is finalized… This project shall not proceed until the $2,000,000 in private contributions is secured and committed.”
But where that money will come from is far from clear. As Urban Milwaukee previously reported, an anonymous donor had pledged a $1 million contribution with the proviso that Ravine Rd. be permanently closed to auto traffic, but the donor has reportedly withdrawn the offer.
Asked whether administration officials have communicated with park neighbors and friends about the expectation to raise $2 million, Baldauff responded, “Not at this time.” She added, “We’ve heard that several individuals and groups may have an interest in contributing to the repair of the bridge, but haven’t received any specific offers or donations.” She adds that a “Memorandum of Understanding is being drafted to be circulated to friends groups who may have an interest in raising the additional funds.”
But the board of Lake Park Friends (LPF) has stated they would be unable to play such a role. No “stakeholder” group has raised anywhere near $2 million in private donations for other projects. Representatives of LPF and Historic Water Tower Neighborhood, who sat on a committee studying the bridge’s future, told county officials months ago they would not be able to raise private funding to restore or replace the structure.
Asked whether the administration caged off the bridge to put pressure on neighbors to come up with such funding, Baldauff responds, “No, and frankly that question is offensive.” She reiterates, “We are closing the bridge out of an abundance of caution to ensure the safety of the public and Parks workers.”
Lake Park Friends president Alice Wilson says the group’s members “fully understand the fiscal challenges the county is facing.” She notes, however, that “we are looking for a comprehensive plan from the county about what it plans to do about the bridge, with actionable solutions.” She said the Friends will “continue to advocate for this historic treasure and encourage its enjoyment by everyone.”
Other Potential Governmental Funding
Park neighbor Julia Taylor (who runs the Greater Milwaukee Committee but notes she is speaking as a private citizen) says in an email that “as an area resident, I am very disappointed that access to the Ravine Bridge was suddenly closed without public input. My understanding is there are no significant structural changes since the July 2015 engineering report, so this seems a draconian move.”
She adds that “we need to address the bigger issue of tax policy and shared revenues for Milwaukee as a community. I hope there will be a chance for public discussion on the closing of the bridge and re-evaluation of this decision. This issue is just one of many structural issues for our public parks and facilities throughout the county. If we decided to close every public structure in the county that is at the end of its “structural life.” there would be few public spaces not touched.”
This bridge project is likely eligible for federal funding through a Transportation Alternatives Program grant for up to 80 percent of costs. County officials have repeatedly played down that fact. January 2018 is the next application deadline.
Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, recently said his group and other civic leaders have begun meetings to discuss options for a sales tax to fund county parks and cultural institutions.
Severing the Park’s Connectivity
With the bridge closed, pedestrians and bikers must make considerable detours, generally to the park’s western perimeter. Another wooden footbridge near the Warming House and Locust Street Ravine is also closed. Says Taylor: “This lack of public access is creating a park suddenly cut in two for those of us who are in the park daily.”
Wilson notes the park “attracts people from all over the county, state and beyond and brings more joy to people of all backgrounds than we can quantify.” It’s a destination for picnics, field sports, golf, hiking through rustic ravines, lawn bowling, birdwatching and summer concerts. The mile-long, linear path along the park’s eastern perimeter, which includes this historic bridge, is a popular among strollers, runners and bicyclists.
The county board’s finance committee rejected, 6-0, a proposed GRAEF contract for $139,664 to design a replacement bridge. GRAEF has already received $98,812 to study potential bridge options, in addition to engineering contracts for the existing bridge.
The finance committee discussed the fact that $2 million must be raised privately before a bridge project could proceed. Board members wondered whether it was appropriate, in the interim, to spend more taxpayer dollars on planning. Instead, at Wasserman’s suggestion, the committee voted to transfer $100,800 to the Ravine Road project from funds allocated in the 2017 budget for GRAEF to study options for another bridge in Lake Park.
The fate of the bridge is likely to get discussed by county board members soon. Says Sup. Jason Haas: “I will definitely have this on the agenda at the next Parks Committee meeting.”
UPDATE 2 p.m. December 19: In response to this story, Teig Whaley-Smith issued the following memo to the County Board:
“It was reported that the number of people that the Lake Park Ravine Bridge could support “would total at least 1,180 people, since the bridge measures 118 feet by 10 feet.” I wanted to let you know that for the reasons stated below, the number is 181 people, not 1,180.
This article was based on a comment at the Finance Committee that a visual representation would show that 30 pounds per square feet is approximately 10 people in a 10 foot by 10 foot area. A 10 by 10 foot area is 100 square feet but I may have misstated as 10 square feet at the committee. I apologize for any confusion. Again, this comment was just an estimate not an exact number.
After consulting with our engineers, the correct calculation would be as follows. The bridge is approximately 118 feet long and 10 feet wide for a total of 1,180 square feet. The bridge can support 30 pounds per square foot. 1,180 Square feet times 30 pounds per square foot is 35,400 pounds. This weight could only be supported if the weight was evenly distributed across the bridge. The average American male adult is 195.5 pounds. 35,400 pounds divided by 195.5 pounds per adult equals 181 adults.”