Jeramey Jannene

Downtown Bridge Openings Rise Even As Water Levels Fall

Annual bridge openings growing by the thousands.

By - Aug 4th, 2022 06:12 pm
Three bridges are simultaneously open as the Vista King heads out to Lake Michigan. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Three bridges are simultaneously open as the Vista King heads out to Lake Michigan. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Does it feel like you’ve been stuck waiting for a bridge to go down more often in recent years? Your mind is not playing tricks on you.

Milwaukee’s 21 movable bridges are going up and down with increasing frequency even as water levels retreat by more than two feet from a June 2020 high. In 2018, city officials held a public hearing as bridge openings jumped 60% in three years to 23,244. In 2021, openings climbed to 27,769.

The reason why is both incredibly simple and yet incredibly complex. The simple answer is the fact that Milwaukee Boat Line relocated upriver in 2021, from south of E. Michigan St. north to just south of E. Juneau Ave. The move places the organization’s two vessels five bridges further from Lake Michigan, which a Department of Public Works official estimated in July adds hundreds of openings annually to each of the affected bridges.

The complex answer starts with the fact that the city does not control when its bridges must open and close, a decision that can be traced back to the days when this area was known as the Northwest Territory and priority was given to river traffic. The city’s decision to invest in its waterways, both in their cleanup and the development of a riverwalk network, has increased the desirability of river cruising on personal boats. The revitalization of Downtown has also been a boon to businesses like Milwaukee Boat Line and Edelweiss Cruises and Boat Tours.

That revitalization spurred Milwaukee Boat Line to move from a dock, 101 W. Michigan St., between two river-facing parking structures to one further upriver near Fiserv Forum and the heart of Milwaukee’s two primary bar districts at 1124 N. Old World Third St.

“The location has been great,” said owner Jake Chianelli in an interview. “There is just a lot more happening.”

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Chianelli’s company offers three to five trips per day. That includes ticketed, narrated cruises on the Vista King as well as cocktail and live music cruises. Milwaukee Boat Lines uses its Voyageur vessel for private charters. The Edelweiss operation is located a block to the south.

Both companies operate on regular schedules.

“They give us weekly schedules,” said bridge operation supervisor Karen Forlenza to the Public Works Committee on July 20.

Based on their smaller size, other boats must give a bridge operator two-hour notice to request an opening. No bridge openings are allowed for those vessels between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. and 4:00 and 5:30 p.m., the latter window was expanded to a half-hour earlier after the city successfully petitioned the U.S. Coast Guard following the 2018 hearing.

“Is that enforced? Because it doesn’t look like it’s enforced,” asked Alderman Robert Bauman.

Forlenza said it was, as did Chianelli in a later interview.

Department of Public Works officials and a number of boaters, in 2018, said there was concern about extending the two-hour rule. It could cause boats to collide in the water or to cause the eventual bridge openings to be even longer.

Chianelli praised the work of the city’s bridge operations team. “They have been pretty awesome this year,” he said. Chianelli said it’s visible that they’re working to keep the bridges open as short as possible.

Forlenza said the bridges have operated recently without major issues, though they require regular maintenance.

Like many issues at City Hall, the city’s tax structure is the elephant in the room. Federal law prevents the city from charging per opening, but federal regulations also require in-person operators for most of the bridges. The city does receive property tax revenue from increased property values along the rivers, but does not directly receive sales or income tax revenue. The city budget calls for $3.6 million to be spent on the Department of Public Works bridge operations and maintenance division, which includes the non-operable bridges spread across the city. More than $1 million of the division’s costs is staffing for bridge operator positions.

“The city taxpayers bear these extra costs because people from Waukesha want to come down here and drive their boats,” said Bauman. “And apparently there is not a damn thing we can do about it.”

Bridge Opening Stats

2017-2021 Bridge Stats. Data from DPW.

2017-2021 Bridge Stats. Data from DPW. Michigan St. bridge was “closed” in open position in 2019

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Categories: Weekly

3 thoughts on “Downtown Bridge Openings Rise Even As Water Levels Fall”

  1. B says:

    Thanks for covering this topic – stories like this are why I love my subscription!

    I recently changed workplaces downtown to one closer to the river and I thought that the bridges were opening quite a bit but I didn’t have a baseline. I am surprised by how often the tour boats go through.

    Has anyone ever seen the bridge operator at Water St in the third ward sitting in the window sill?

    Also I think the two part ones that open up are cooler than the tabletop bridges.

  2. Polaris says:

    It must have been that I read this article this morning that I found myself doing a little research on the Milwaukee Bridge War this afternoon. Beyond the fact that the streets on either side of the river don’t align, who really knows the story?

    Wouldn’t it be great to commemorate this with more than just a little plaque? It’s such a unique part of the city’s history.

    How about an annual event where businesses, nonprofits and residential buildings on either side of the river compete against each other in various events for bragging rights for the following year? Kilbourntown vs. Juneau Town. Maybe a week’s worth of competitive activities capped by a Friday of coming together to celebrate? (The “war” started on May 3, 1845 and culminated in 1846 when the city was incorporated.) Maybe a 5K? Kayak races? Trivia competitions? Brat eating contests? Winning side gets the “Great Milwaukee Bridge War” Trophy displayed in a case on their side of of the Spring Stre…err, I mean Wisconsin Avenue bridge. And, in the end it’s actually a fundraiser that everyone can rally around to support the community.

  3. Claude Krawczyk says:

    This continues to be an expanding and real problem—that could be alleviated if the powers that be actually focused on real solutions. I invite anyone with a serious interest in finding solutions to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon with me on my balcony overlong the river between Wisconsin and Wells—the two most opened bridges—to see AND HEAR first hand the problems this creates for residents, pedestrians, motorists, emergency vehicles, etc. I don’t believe that nothing can be done if local and federal officials work together with boat tour operators, residents, representatives of office workers, etc. to find creative and meaningful ways to relieve the current problems.

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