Years of construction ahead for Milwaukee area freeways

Last updated on May 26th, 2022 at 03:57 am

Two major freeway construction projects in the Milwaukee area that began last year are providing a significant amount of work for local contractors, surface marking contractors and construction workers, and will result in major infrastructure improvements for the region. But in the meantime, road closures and increased traffic will create headaches for motorists traveling around the metro area.

The freeway projects are providing much needed work for the region’s beleaguered construction workforce. Unemployment for the region’s construction workforce peaked at about 30 percent during the Great Recession but is now down to 15 percent, in large part because of work created by the road projects, said Ken Kraemer, executive director of Building Advantage, an organization that represents union trades workers and contractors.

“Most people hate it, but I like those orange barrels,” Kraemer said. “Infrastructure projects have really helped us. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been able to have guys go on road construction projects, with the lack of vertical (building) construction.”

Hoan Bridge Project

The two major freeway construction projects that began in the area last year are the reconstruction and expansion of the Zoo Interchange and the re-decking of the Hoan Bridge.

Zoo Interchange

The Zoo Interchange reconstruction and expansion is a massive project that will not be complete until 2018. By comparison, the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange project dwarfs the $800 million Marquette Interchange reconstruction that was completed in 2008. The Zoo Interchange project covers nine miles compared to the four-mile Marquette Interchange project.

The Zoo Interchange was built in 1964 and is the busiest freeway interchange in the state with 350,000 vehicles passing through it each day. The Marquette Interchange handles 285,000 vehicles per day.

Exact employment figures for the project were not available, but the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has 150 engineers, a combination of staff employees and private consultants, working together in a 39,000-square-foot office building in West Allis that the agency has leased just to administer the Zoo Interchange project.

Some changes to the Zoo Interchange will be similar to changes made to the Marquette Interchange in its reconstruction. Most notably, left lane on and off ramps will be eliminated. All exit and entrance ramps will be moved to the right side. Through traffic will be on the left side.

“Significant changes of direction will always occur on the right side,” said Ryan Luck, WisDOT construction chief for the southeast freeways construction group.

When interchanges like the Zoo were built in the 1960s they were designed intuitively with exits on the left to go in that direction and exits on the right to go that way. But modern federal highway standards require all exit and entrance ramps on the right to improve safety by allowing through traffic to remain on the left with fewer conflicts from entrance ramp mergers and slowdowns for exit ramps.

The design change will likely take some time for local drivers to get used to, Luck said.

“Some of those driving habits have been ingrained for 30 to 40 years,” he said.

The Zoo Interchange will have four lanes of traffic in each direction on the approach legs. The portion of U.S. Highway 45 going northbound and southbound through the core of the interchange will be expanded from two lanes in each direction to three. But the portion of I-94 going eastbound and westbound through the core of the interchange will remain at two lanes in each direction.

The project will add a larger shoulder that will allow for future expansion of I-94 through the core of the interchange. That segment of the interchange is not being expanded now because of a lack of local consensus to do so, Luck said. City of Milwaukee officials objected to plans to expand the Zoo Interchange, saying it would encourage additional urban sprawl and that improvements to the region’s mass transit system are needed.

The interchange will also be expanded by adding additional lanes to the most heavily-used ramps.

The project also includes a reconstruction and redesign of the interchange at U.S. Highway 45 and Watertown Plank Road. That interchange is critical because it serves traffic going to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center (where 30,000 employees, patients and visitors go each day), Milwaukee County Research Park and the still developing UWM Innovation Campus.

The new 45/Watertown Plank Road interchange will feature a free flow access design to and from all directions. No signals will be required along Watertown Plank Road, which the DOT says will significantly increase the capacity of the interchange.

“We’re putting in a very state of the art interchange there,” Luck said.

As part of the improvements in that area, Swan Boulevard was separated from the Watertown Plank Road interchange and was extended southwest to intersect with Watertown Plank Road at the intersection with Innovation Drive.

In addition, several improvements are being made to arterial surface streets near the Zoo Interchange. Some of that work is already complete, including the reconstruction and expansion of the Highway 100 and Bluemound Road intersection and the widening of Highway 100 between that intersection and Watertown Plank Road from three lanes in each direction to four lanes in each direction. Other arterial road improvements will include the expansion of Watertown Plank Road from two lanes in each direction to three lanes in each direction between 87th Street and Highway 100.

Improvements to the arterial streets near the Zoo Interchange will help the area handle re-routed traffic during the project and higher future traffic volumes, WisDOT officials say.

Like the Marquette Interchange project, WisDOT officials promise to keep two lanes of traffic open during peak travel times for vehicles going north, south, east or west straight through the Zoo Interchange.

However, there will be significant system ramp closures and some will be closed longer than others. One of the biggest headaches: the ramp from westbound I-94 to southbound I-894 will be closed for about 2.5 years.

WisDOT officials learned a lot from the reconstruction projects for the Marquette Interchange and the Mitchell Interchange and those lessons will be applied on the Zoo Interchange project, Luck said. For the most part the team that led the Marquette and Mitchell projects is leading the Zoo project.

“We know that extensive outreach to the community is paramount,” Luck said. “The community understands, as long as they see progress, you tell them when you are doing something. If you tell them in advance, they are resilient. What we don’t want to do is we don’t want to surprise them.”

Hoan Bridge

A 2010 inspection of the Hoan Bridge in Milwaukee recommended a re-decking (to replace the concrete road surface) and repairs to the steel, especially in joints where water has seeped in and done some damage. A $226 million project for that work began last year and will be complete in 2015.

“The ultimate goal is to get another 50 years of life out of the Hoan Bridge,” said Carolynn Gellings, project manager for WisDOT southeast freeways group.

The cost for the project is down from earlier estimates, but does not include the cost to paint the bridge. The bridge will be repainted with the original blue and yellow colors, which have faded on the bridge over the years. The painting work will be done in 2016 and 2017. The paint is important to protect the steel from deterioration.

LED lights will be added to the bridge’s iconic arch in 2015.

The Hoan Bridge project also includes the rebuilding of I-794 between the Marquette Interchange and the Lake Interchange. That section was built when the Marquette Interchange was originally built in 1969 and was scheduled to be rebuilt as part of the 2008 Marquette Interchange reconstruction, but was put on hold temporarily to reduce costs.

Most of the Lake Interchange, which connects the Hoan Bridge and north-south I-794 to the east-west section of I-794 will be left alone for now, WisDOT officials say.

“Those decks and superstructure are in good shape,” Luck said.

The state’s $16 million portion of the $34 million Lakefront Gateway project will begin in 2015 when work on the Hoan Bridge is complete. To the general public it will seem like a continuation of the Hoan project. The state will move two ramps in the Lake Interchange to open up a potential development site southwest of Clybourn Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive.

“We’re excited about the opportunity that will bring the community,” Gellings said.

The Lakefront Gateway project also includes numerous city street improvements, including the extension of Lincoln Memorial Drive south to Chicago Street in the Historic Third Ward, and the conversion of Clybourn Street into a boulevard. WisDOT will coordinate the entire Lakefront Gateway project. Plans are still being developed for additional pedestrian and bicycle enhancements in the Lakefront Gateway area, Luck said.

Other projects

Work to rebuild I-94 from the Mitchell Interchange in Milwaukee to the Wisconsin-Illinois state line and expand that freeway to four lanes in each direction was pushed back when Gov. Scott Walker’s administration shifted WisDOT’s focus to the Zoo Interchange project. However, the $1.65 billion I-94 North-South project is progressing, Luck said.

The project is now slated to be complete in 2021.

“We are programmed and ready to go,” Luck said.

By the end of this fall work to expand I-94 to four lanes in each direction will be complete in Kenosha County.

This year’s work on the project will also include the Highway 20 interchange in Racine County.

Work on the corridor will slow down and then pick up, particularly from 2018-20, Luck said.

Meanwhile, WisDOT is doing planning work for a reconstruction of a 3.5-mile segment of I-94 between the Marquette Interchange and the Zoo Interchange. The project would include the Stadium Interchange near Miller Park. Study work for the project is expected to be complete this year. No construction dates have been set.

The bottom line for Milwaukee-area motorists: brace yourself for significant construction headaches this year on area freeways, and for years to come in the metro area.

“It’s going to be a very busy year,” Luck said. “We have lots to do.”

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