Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Downtown Bridges Cause Mounting Traffic

Bridge openings stop traffic for nearly 4.5 hours on busy days. City mulls policy changes.

By - Apr 25th, 2018 03:50 pm
Broadway Bridge. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Broadway Bridge. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

If you feel like you’re getting stuck more often waiting for a bridge to come down to cross the river, you’re right. In 2014, the city’s 21 movable bridges were raised 14,003 times to accommodate boat traffic. In 2017, that number had climbed — by 60 percent! — to 23,244 openings.

The increase is due to a confluence of factors including higher Lake Michigan water levels, a strong economy and a growing number of waterfront businesses. The river level is up two feet since 2014, causing an increasing number of boats to require bridge openings to navigate the rivers.

And while waterfront business owners are certainly happy to see people enjoying the rivers, the city now must grapple with rush hour congestion and angry neighbors. On the Milwaukee River’s busiest days, key bridges through downtown may raise 60 times, closing the crossing street for approximately 4.5 hours. The proximity of intersections to bridges can cause traffic backups that span many blocks and go in both directions.

Compared to its peer cities, the issue is particularly acute in Milwaukee. A city study has found that in the United States only Chicago has more movable bridges. They’re not cheap either. Milwaukee spent $2.3 million on bridge operation and maintenance in 2017, and spends millions more every time a bridge needs to be rehabilitated. Federal regulations prevent the city from passing those costs onto boaters with a fee.

As a result, the Common Council and Department of Public Works have begun exploring expanding periods in which bridge openings are restricted and other methods that could balance the federally-protected right of boaters to freely use the river with that of thousands of Milwaukee drivers, bus passengers, bicyclists and pedestrians who cross the city’s many bridges daily.

The issue was hotly debated before the council’s Public Works Committee on Wednesday morning with nearby residents and boaters testifying on both sides of the issue. Almost all speakers agreed that some change should be made, but specifically what wasn’t clear. And all seemed to agree the congestion shows the success achieved by Milwaukee in spending millions in public and private investment to improve its rivers. “It’s a good problem to have,” said Alderman Nik Kovac.

The city is currently required to open bridges upon request for any regularly scheduled service of a boat permitted to carry 50 or more passengers, which includes boats operated by Milwaukee Boat Line and Edelweiss/Milwaukee River Cruise Lines. The city has little control over when those boats can leave, but a report indicates the operators of both lines have been amenable to moving their scheduled runs outside of the 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. rush hour.

Recreational and commercial boats with smaller capacities are subject to city regulations approved by the Coast Guard that prevent bridge openings between 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. However, it’s not clear how stringently that rule has been enforced. The city intends to do a more rigorous job of enforcement in 2018, and the council is exploring an expansion of that prohibited period for bridge closings.

The city, however, does not control its own destiny on this. Almost any change in its policy will ultimately require the approval of the U.S. Coast Guard which regulates navigable federal waters. The city will need to submit a traffic study to show the number of people impacted, including riders of the 14 Milwaukee County Transit System bus routes that regularly cross downtown bridges.

The city is still at least a month from advancing any changes. The file before the Public Works Committee is purely a communication file used to solicit information from the Department of Public Works and the public, not a directive or ordinance change.

Committee chair and area alderman Robert Bauman floated the idea of making the restricted period three hours long, something that drew substantial opposition, but did elicit a lot of feedback on various changes that might be more acceptable.

One potential change that almost everyone seems to agree won’t work is opening the bridge only at scheduled 30-minute intervals.  “You would have more problems through the intersections where it’s really backing up,” said Craig Liberto, Engineer in Charge of Bridges and Buildings for the city. The openings would become very long as boats would have entered long queues anticipating the opening. Others warned of collisions that would occur on the water from boats clustering near the busiest bridges.

Bells of the Milwaukee River

Temporary street closures aren’t the only conflict between boaters and downtown residents and workers.

The bells accompanying an opening are drawing the ire of residents of condominiums and apartments that live near the most active bridges.

Following a pilot project, the city that will reduce the number of bells on bridges from four to two on bridges nearest residential buildings and reduce the bell ringing from approximately five minutes to one minute per opening.

This initial move is drawing the support of attorney Kelly Condon, who lives near the Wells St. bridge. Condon, who has been one of the leaders in promoting changes in city policy, told the committee: “I’m just asking for a solution that allows all of us to enjoy downtown Milwaukee with a little common courtesy.”

The Department of Public Works is planning a handful of other changes to how it operates bridges this year. When bridges open, close and then are requested to open again, the city will keep the bridge closed for at least five minutes. Controls are also being changed on the Wisconsin Avenue bridge that should save 85 seconds per closing. Those changes will keep downtown’s main street open an additional 86 hours per year. The rehabilitation of the Wells Street bridge will also yield a bridge that opens and closes faster when it reopens in early 2019.

2017 Openings by Bridge

  • W. Wisconsin Ave. – 3,649
  • W. Michigan St. – 3,559
  • W. Wells St. – 3,305
  • N. Water St. – 3,096
  • N. Broadway – 3,073
  • E. Clybourn St. – 1,876
  • W. St. Paul Ave. – 1,712
  • S. Kinnickinnic Ave. – 1,043
  • W. Kilbourn Ave. – 680
  • W. State St. – 635
  • S. 1st St. – 276
  • N. Plankinton Ave. – 226
  • S. 6th St. – 24
  • E. Juneau Ave. – 24
  • E. Pleasant St. – 19
  • W. Highland Ave. – 18
  • E. Knapp St. – 12
  • N. 6th St. – 9
  • Emmber Lane – 5
  • E. Cherry St. – 3

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11 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Downtown Bridges Cause Mounting Traffic”

  1. Q says:

    Everyone wants a downtown condo until they realize there is noise and people and traffic and congestion and I just want to move back to the burbs where its quiet.

  2. DAG999 says:

    I lived Downtown for a few years (but more north of the river). The congestion and lack of parking in the late 1990’s & early 2000’s was already an issue. I can only imagine what it is like now. When I was looking at condos along the river, several things stood out. The cheap construction of many of the units that I looked at (plastic woodwork, laminate floors, cheap appliances), the noise of the traffic (especially sounds of trucks and busses going over the bridges), and the boat whistles required each and every time a bridge needed to rise. While occasionally sitting alongside the river and dining alfresco is something I might call charming and creates a nautical, atmosphere–living with 3 to 5 toot’s of ships horns 3,000 times a year changes everything when you are sitting on your balcony (or trying to sleep late).

  3. Kurt says:

    There is nothing more obnoxious than being trapped between Pittsburgh and Erie Street because a 2 mile long freight train is stopped (blocking 2nd St) and the Water Street Bridge is lifted for a sailboat headed upstream. It’s just rude. Where in the world do you “need” to go at this very second with your sailboat? You can only go so far before you need to turn around and head back. Basic manners would be nice. I have a boat on the river and I promise to never be that guy. The best is when the bridge gets stuck and you’re already running late or you really need to use the bathroom. The Milwaukee Boat Line is very accommodating of hectic road and river traffic, but the average d-bag stopping traffic so he can “sail” to the Ale House during rush hour is another story.

    Not long ago I inquired about this. Why aren’t there rules where bridges are restricted to lift only for important/necessary purposes during rush hour? I was told by the Coast Guard that Maritime Law gives marine traffic the right of way over vehicular traffic. I think there’s a little wiggle room with this regulation (and I would love to see it enforced). I also recall reading an article years ago in either M Magazine or Milwaukee Magazine about the cost of raising and lowering each bridge, each time. I’d have to dig around to find those numbers (and if I can find them I’ll report back).

    Sometimes I feel like a superhero in the Downtown/Third Ward area as I dart to all the secret passages to avoid the chaos of bridges, trains, pedal taverns, buses, bikes, horse carriages, delivery trucks, the jerk that double parks on Water Street with his hazards on, the driver who didn’t learn that you use your directional to let other drivers know BEFORE you stop if you’re making a left across traffic…not to mention that there are huge signs that say “Left Turn on Red After Stop” that people miss for turning left from a one-way onto another one-way. I get it…not everyone knows where they’re going; and how could they with all the confusing over there? I know I’ll get hated on for saying this, but adding a streetcar is going to make the problem worse.

    No, this doesn’t bother me enough to move. I love where I live. I can’t make it better without addressing what could be improved. So, does anyone know how much it costs to raise a bridge? Does anyone know about the wiggle room within the Maritime Law?

  4. CarlBaehr says:

    Why is the Wisconsin Avenue bridge raised more often than the Michigan or Wells Street bridges? It doesn’t seem logical.

  5. DAG999 says:

    There was a book published in the 1960’s showing many urban planning ideas for the City of Milwaukee (I believe I saw it in the UWM library collections). One of the proposals included a new urban harbor being dug out and created by the boundaries of the Milwaukee River East, West to 6th street in front of the MATC building, and North and South between State street and Juneau Avenue. All of those buildings within those blocks would have been demolished to make room for it. I think it contained drawings & proposals by then Milwaukee Mayor HENRY MAIER, which also included plans for many more boat docks up to the old (and since removed) North Avenue dam. I can only imagine what traffic jams that would have created…especially since many of the bridges of the time were not the speedier vertical lifts we have today.

  6. Matt Prigge says:

    Carl – the downtown bridges actually have minor differences in their clearances, so a vessel that just barely needs a lift on Wisconsin might not need it others. Also, many upstream boats will dock or turn around north of Wisconsin before heading back down.

  7. Matt Prigge says:

    Kurt- the ‘cost per left’ thing is kind of overblown. Most of that cost – maintenance, staffing, etc – is fixed, so while a reduction in overall lifts will probably reduce overall costs, the price per lift will climb accordingly.

  8. Kurt says:

    Matt – Good point. I’m still interested in the data. If I can find extra time I’ll do some digging today.

    Carl – The WI Ave bridge doesn’t have as much clearance. My boat made clearance by about 4 inches under it last year (as long as we all ducked our heads).

    After we finish this conversation can we talk about the need for kayaks to have lights on the front and back after dark? Whenever there major river traffic (mainly after fireworks), I worry about the kayakers getting smothered by boats unable to see them. I know a few folks with cheap LED lights that work great. I also worry the kayakers could get killed upon impact as the cops and Coast Guard go flying down/up the river on an emergency call. This type of speed on narrow parts of the river created a wake strong enough to lift the docks off their posts last year. I hope someone doesn’t have to get killed before this is addressed. Then again, if the bridges will have to lift for the responders to get through, they won’t be able to go as fast. Problem’s already solved.

  9. Cheryl Nenn says:

    The City has been trying to encourage more boating downstream of the High-Rise Bridge for years. As more condos develop upstream, many want piers–but there is a way to encourage smaller boats in that part of the river that don’t cause bridges to open. There are some restrictions in bridge openings during evening and special events already (4th of July), and I think putting time limits on bridge openings could be a rational policy to address the noise/dinging when the bridge opens. Makes sense to cut the duration of the “dinging” as well.

    I do wonder how they are going to time the streetcar over the St. Paul Bridge along with boater traffic. I think the MKE Boat Line will be on a more defined schedule due to that. Historically, the Edelweiss could clear those bridges, but the lake levels are still rising (forecast for 6 inch increase since last year), so they may be raising a lot of bridges this year too.

    Also, all kayakers/person-powered craft are required to have at least 1 light at night. We do that on our evening paddles. Also, important to note that the MKE Harbor Patrol and DNR Patrols are both being significantly cut this year due to budget cuts at the City and State, respectively. The funds for Park Rangers have been cut and the DNR Wardens now have to cover the land and the water (they will be spending 70% of their time in state parks/campgrounds). If you value those marine safety services, contact your City Alders and State Reps/Senators.

  10. Kurt says:

    Cheryle – I usually see one Harbor Patrol boat and one Coast Guard boat. They keep busy too with all the drunk knuckleheads on the rentals. They also stop boats randomly to make sure they’re in compliance. I wonder how much they CAN cut considering the number of Hoan Bridge jumpers and the occasional people who fall into the river. I’ve been saying for some time that it would be less expensive to put cameras on the river vs the hours and dollars spent searching for missing people that might have fallen in.

    Although all boats are supposed to have lights, too often I’ve seen kayakers without them. That’s just plain dangerous.

  11. Kurt says:

    AND I will take your advice and contact my alderman and state reps/senators. Thanks for the tip!

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