The Bridge to Somewhere

Milwaukee’s Hoan Bridge, which connects downtown to Bay View, St. Francis, Cudahy and other communities on the south side, needs an estimated $200 million in repairs.

Between 2010 and 2013, the bridge’s concrete base and asphalt need complete replacement, a process called re-decking, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The bridge’s exposed metal surfaces also need painting, said Chris Klein, an executive assistant and spokesman for DOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi.

Because of the costs of the repairs, the state is considering other options, including replacement of the bridge with a street-level boulevard.

“Whenever the price tag is that high we look at other options,” Klein said. “We said, ‘Let’s explore some of the other possibilities out there instead of replacing the bridge deck.’ This is a significant cost, and we felt it would be irresponsible not to look at other options.”

Several public officials representing the south side and southern suburbs have objected to the idea of replacing the Hoan Bridge with a street-level boulevard, saying the Hoan provides a vital transportation link for their constituents to downtown.

However, replacing the bridge with a boulevard could open up real estate development opportunities for property near the lakefront.

If the DOT were to repair the Hoan Bridge, its life would be extended for about 40 years. Because re-decking and painting would last that long, the state, Milwaukee County and city officials need to carefully weigh their options now.

“If we replace the bridge deck and go forward with that, we won’t be looking at this option for a long time,” Klein said. “If we’re ever going to look at this option (replacing the bridge), the time is now, before we replace that deck.”

Earlier this summer, the DOT asked HNTB Corp., a Kansas City, Mo.-based design and consulting firm that deals with transportation, urban planning and other issues, to create conceptual designs for the roadway.

HNTB studied one potential plan – replacing the Hoan Bridge with a combination of a street-level, four-lane boulevard that also uses a 45-foot high bascule bridge over the straight cut going into Lake Michigan from the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnikinnic rivers.

“It would look like an urban boulevard with a high level of landscaping, sidewalks, bike lanes and all sorts of things like that,” said Matthew Hintze, a vice president for HNTB and the author of the Hoan Bridge study. “We’d still have to rise up to get up to the lift bridge – we’d still need 45 feet of clearance. We wouldn’t want to have to lift (the bridge) up for every sailboat that comes through.”

The roadway would begin rising at Polk Street in the Third Ward, then pass over a bridge that crosses the river and continue over the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District plant and the Port of Milwaukee. The road would lower to street level after the port, opening some of the land on Jones Island for potential redevelopment.

HNTB’s study created two conceptual plans. Both plans call for:

  • A new marina to be created along the lakefront, south of the Port of Milwaukee.
  • Increased development occurring within the eastern portion of the Third Ward, an area of numerous parking lots and vacant parcels.
  • The Lake Interchange, the connection between the Hoan Bridge and the western segment of I-794, would be lowered to street level, freeing up additional land for redevelopment in the Third Ward.
  • New residential development occurring in Bay View, north of Becher Street. The land is currently dominated by industrial and storage facilities, some of which are vacant.

HNTB’s Concept A design, which maximizes public space, shows a new 135-acre public park to be created south of the port and on Jones Island. It also shows new residential and mixed use development on the western side of the rivers.

The Concept B design, which maximizes development opportunities, shows the development of an entertainment pier immediately south of the Port of Milwaukee. It also shows residential development south of the port and on Jones Island, connecting with residential development in northern Bay View. The western side of the rivers would house a new industrial park, according to the study.

Concept A, the report states, would create $90 million in land sales, while Concept B would create $204 million. Replacing the bridge with a boulevard would open up land that could eventually attract $2 billion to $5 billion in real estate development, the HNTB report says.

HNTB estimates constructing a street network and demolishing the existing bridge would cost $210 million to $225 million.

While slightly higher than the anticipated $200 million cost for the re-decking project, the new street-level roadway would have lower future maintenance costs than the existing Hoan Bridge.

The Lake Interchange is slated for reconstruction near 2025, according to the HNTB report. That work would cost about $120 million, according to HNTB. If it were done with a street-level boulevard replacing the Hoan Bridge, the total project would cost about $300 million, Hintze said.

The DOT also anticipates that the Hoan Bridge will need to be totally replaced around 2050, and HNTB’s study shows that replacing the bridge might cost $450 million.

“Even if you rehab it now, someday you’re going to have to replace it,” Hintze said.

HNTB’s study is only the first attempt by the DOT and other officials to determine how the bridge and the lakefront real estate it passes over might be redeveloped, Klein said.

“We are looking at all of the other options that are available,” he said. “We’re in discussions with the city to find other (options) and to see what is favorable. The analysis that was released by HNTB’s report, the end result may be that it is a good idea, or it may be a bad idea. Right now, it is just an idea.”

The DOT’s primary concern is the condition of the bridge and any future roadway’s capacity to carry traffic, Klein said. The state agency recently began talks with Milwaukee officials, as well as officials from the Port of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County.

“We can’t really speak about the quality of development or how likely it would be,” Klein said. “That’s for other people. We are not real estate experts.”

Hintze said the HNTB study is meant to help spur future public discussions about the bridge and land use.

“There’s just a lot of possibilities in the area,” he said. “We’re not saying that any of them are the right land use, but the opportunity is so great that we ought to at least have a public discussion on it.”

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