Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Bridge Repairs Shutting Down North Avenue Bridge

County-owned bridge example of crumbling infrastructure in backlog of projects.

By - Feb 17th, 2022 10:41 am

Eastbound detour for E. North Ave.

A key roadway on Milwaukee’s East Side will soon be closed. From Feb. 23 to July the E. North Ave. bridge between N. Oakland Ave. and N. Bartlett Ave. will be closed for repairs.

In 2019, emergency repairs were made to the bridge.

Yan Nenaydykh, executive vice president of Bloom Companies LLC, which designed the rebuild of the bridge deck, told Urban Milwaukee at the time of the temporary repairs that pieces of the deck were falling through, creating large holes in the bridge. These holes were temporarily filled with concrete.

The bridge deck is the top concrete layer. When it started to fall apart, holes were created in the bridge as large as a foot in diameter. The superstructure, composed of 50-ton girders, had pieces of concrete falling off, necessitating the replacement of those girders.

The $1 million project is being managed by Milwaukee County Department of Transportation (MCDOT), Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) and the engineering firm GRAEF. The majority of funding for the project, 80%, is coming from WisDOT. The rest is covered by the county.

This bridge, which crosses a former railroad corridor, is actually owned by Milwaukee County Parks. The corridor is now the county’s Oak Leaf Trail, to which the county also owns the air rights. Bridges, like this one, that must be repaired impose an additional financial burden on the already underfunded department.

“The obligation of the parks department and the county to repair the North Avenue bridge is just another example of how far-reaching the obligations of the parks department are,” said James Tarantino, interim deputy director of parks, in an interview with Urban Milwaukee.

The parks department is responsible for a number of important pieces of transportation infrastructure throughout the city of Milwaukee and the county, like the Lincoln Memorial Bridge, that have to jockey with many other projects in the department’s massive capital backlog.

“Bridges and roads, especially high traffic ones like North Avenue, are a critical part of the transportation infrastructure, and they need to get fixed,” Tarantino said. “So when something needs to get fixed, it crowds out all the other quality of life amenities that people expect from the parks department.”

People want the parks department to invest in things like baseball diamonds, ice rinks, beaches, golf courses, community centers and other recreational amenities, Tarantino said.

“If you look at the parkways and the county trunk highways throughout the city and the county, there’s so much critical infrastructure that is budgeted as if it were discretionary because it’s part of the parks department,” he said. “But people rely on it for transportation and they expect it to be safe, reliable infrastructure that’s going to last.”

Since 2010, the county has experienced a real-dollar decline in state revenue of $455 million since 2010. County Executive David Crowley and top budget officials have begun warning that the county is on the brink of financial ruin that would translate to massive cuts in county services like transit and parks.

The parks department has, for some time, been unable to make major investments in the capital assets it owns throughout the county, as it constantly tries to catch up with a growing backlog of deferred maintenance.

In 2018, the Wisconsin Policy Forum released a report on capital needs in the parks system: “Assets that the county should replace within the next 10 years included 85% of parking lots and service yards, 75% of walkways, 73% of parkways, 54% of rated Oak Leaf Trail segments and basketball courts, 48% of tennis courts, and 47% of large buildings.”

“Maybe it means that we have too much infrastructure,” Tarantino said. “Maybe it means that when we do things like expand the trail network that we also need to put resources behind the long term maintenance of it.”

And if the county can’t do that, “then maybe we need to take a critical look at reducing our paved assets and making parking lots smaller and reducing the obligations of the county to maintain these things,” he said. This could mean, he explained, narrowing streets instead of investing in vehicle infrastructure, and instead invest in pedestrian infrastructure.

Tarantino pointed to the recent federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and said, “We don’t know right now what the federal infrastructure bill is going to look like locally, but I hope that situations like this help inform our priorities around long-term sustainable infrastructure.”

The Oak Leaf Trail is not expected to be detoured as part of the project.

Detour Information (2019 Maps)

Update: This story was updated to reflect that the $455 million decline in state aid figure for the county does account for inflation.

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4 thoughts on “MKE County: Bridge Repairs Shutting Down North Avenue Bridge”

  1. 45 years in the City says:

    Thanks Graham for correctly reporting the background of this bridge’s ownership. It has been erroneously reported elsewhere that North Avenue is part of the county highway system, which it is not.

    As noted in the article, the county became involved when the bridge became the responsibility of the Parks Department through its purchase of the former Chicago and Northwestern right-of-way below. Interestingly, this bridge and others still use the foundations built by C&NW. Luckily these are more durable than the bridge decks installed in modern times.

    This “air rights” issue is not unique. Through acquisition of Chicago Union Station from predecessor railroads, Amtrak got stuck with responsibility for bridges which carry some Chicago city streets over the station’s platforms and approaches. I’m not sure if this is still true. I recall reading some years ago that Amtrak and Chicago sparred over damage to these structures due to road salt.

  2. Carl Schwartz says:

    This bridge also crosses the Milwaukee River; is that not relevant here?

  3. blurondo says:

    “Since 2010, the county has experienced a real-dollar decline in state revenue of $455 million since 2010.”

    That is the year that Scott Walker and the Republicans took over the state government. Their efforts to financially and politically degrade and economically depress Milwaukee County and specifically the City of Milwaukee continue today.
    Currently the state holds a budget surplus of $3.8 billion. Quite obviously, the majority in the Capitol could care less about the safety of individuals threatened by unsafe bridges and roadways in Milwaukee.

  4. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Carl – That’s a different, larger bridge.

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