As anyone who’s driven it recently can attest, the iconic Hoan Bridge is not in the best shape. The pavement needs to be replaced, and the complexity of the work involved has led consultants to estimates as high as $200 million (which would include reconfiguring the northern terminus). As if that weren’t enough, the bridge is estimated to reach the end of its useful life in 2035 or so, at which point it would need to be essentially rebuilt. It’s difficult to estimate costs that far into the future, but I’ve read figures anywhere from $1 billion to $3 billion.
As a consequence, proposals have come up to study alternatives, including tearing the bridge down and replacing it with an at-grade four-lane roadway and a lift bridge to accommodate the larger ships making use of the Port of Milwaukee.
A few people are upset. (That is an understatement.)
Frankly, I’m not sure what I think of this issue. At the very least, though, it seems to me that studies should be done. The Hoan may be iconic, but I wonder how much people want to pay to maintain that icon. (My guess is, if taxes rise to accommodate the cost, people will gripe…no matter how strenuously they yelled in support of keeping the bridge.) The arguments in favor of replacing the Hoan point first to the high cost of maintaining and replacing it, and secondly to the benefits of a roadway better integrated into its surroundings, with the potential for development that situation might offer. (One thing not often mentioned: the frequently proposed notion to add bike lanes to the Hoan seems like a bad idea: between very high winds and the steep grade, only the most hardy cyclists would use the lanes. But an at-grade solution would offer a much more convenient bicycle route from the south shore areas to downtown.)
There are, though, significant problems that might hinder development. First, whether development would follow is by no means certain. On the one hand, the teardown of the old Sixth Street Viaduct has been a success: the new bridge is an enormous aesthetic improvement, and the new Harley museum chose the land midway between the two spans of the new bridge for its location, which it certainly would not have done had the old viaduct been replaced as an elevated roadway. On the other, the teardown of the Park East Freeway Spur has been far less successful than anticipated…although to be fair, the city wanted to vet development in that area for the best fit with the rest of the neighborhood, and a lot of projects in the planning stages (or even in the groundbreaking stages) were put on hold or cancelled in the wake of the recession.
Another huge problem with development beneath the Hoan is that a lot of the land is, most likely, brownfield or at least a bit iffy due to its history of industrial usage. And of course, all this is right near (read: sometimes downwind from) the Milwaukee sewage treatment facility…not the best recommendation for developers.
Finally, residents, business owners, and officials in Bay View and the suburbs to its south are understandably concerned that the elimination of the Hoan’s connection to the Lake Parkway, which has been a boon to development in the areas, would cause severe economic difficulties. Proponents of the at-grade plan argue that it can bear just as much traffic, with only about a 90-second delay in overall transit time, and with the lift bridge opening on average once a day for about six minutes. That sounds pretty good…until you do the math. The span of the Hoan is about two miles: at 60 mph, that means it takes about two minutes to cross. In other words, the at-grade plan would nearly double the time it takes. Sure, two and a half minutes doesn’t sound too long (and of course, that 60-mph figure assumes no traffic jams or other delays—somewhat unrealistic during rush hour), but factor in a once-daily six-minute delay, and what was once a two-minute zip turns into a ten-minute trip punctuated by a long wait at a lifted bridge. I suspect some folks would simply turn left or right and decide to go elsewhere. Of course, if development does succeed, those elsewheres will be in the neighborhood of the Third Ward…and unsurprisingly, many backers of the at-grade plan are Third Ward business owners. (While one county supervisor representing residents at the southern end of the Hoan has been quoted to the effect that many people come to the Third Ward via the Hoan, I’m dubious: that may be true for businesses at the northern end of the Ward, but not so much for the newer businesses near the new condos.)
Another issue is this: do the cost projections for the at-grade alternative include the costs of tearing down the Hoan? Because as we found out a decade ago when a portion of the bridge collapsed, tearing down such a massive structure, in such a sensitive location, is a delicate, careful (i.e., expensive) operation. And if traffic is to be kept flowing, that teardown would ideally happen only after the at-grade roadway is built…but is the proposed route for that roadway distant enough that it would remain open while the Hoan is being torn down?
On balance, it’s beginning to look like refurbishing the Hoan, expensive as it may be, might well be the best option. But study is definitely needed—and the more ridiculous statements of its supporters (that it’s a conspiracy to cut off the south side, say) are not helping their position. And in any event, it would be nice to have the southern exits redone: they are currently a ridiculous, hallucinatory tangle of loops within loops, often over crumbling bridges with no direct access to the most likely destinations. A bridge over the railroad track offering a direct connection to East Lincoln Ave. would be nice: perhaps supplementing the existing exit to Carferry and points east with that connection to the intersection of Lincoln and Bay would be the best choice.