Wigderson’s Take on: Proposed Hoan Bridge Bike Path

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

It’s the $9.4 million question, or possibly we could be playing for ten times that amount. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) will stop taking comments this Wednesday on whether the planned rehabilitation of the Hoan Bridge on Milwaukee’s lakefront will include a pedestrian and bicycle path. They will make a decision by the end of the year.

Design Sketch Courtesy of WisDOT

The Wisconsin DOT has actually come up with five different proposals for the proposed bicycle path. The most expensive idea is to build an additional path to accommodate bicycle and pedestrian traffic above the existing bridge. The price tag on that idea is $95 million.  Even the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin is not in support of that idea.

Other alternatives include building another elevated bridge to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians for $84.4 million, widening the existing structure for $76.4 million, or closing down one of the north bound lanes to create the bicycle and pedestrian path down the center of the bridge for $27.5 million.

The least expensive plan has drawn the endorsement of the Bicycling Federation of Wisconsin for practical political reasons. This plan would shut down the right northbound lane on the bridge, construct a concrete barrier to protect bicyclists and pedestrians from automobiles, and would cost $9.4 million. The price tag is practically a bargain considering the proposed alternatives.

Connecting a bicycle trail from Chicago to Sheboygan, and possibly as far as Door County, over one of the most iconic landmarks in Wisconsin, is a long time dream of bicycling fanatics. You thought Cubs fans were obnoxious before, wait until we’re spending tax money just to allow them to slow down traffic.

That’s exactly what the two less expensive plans would do – slow down traffic. According to the Wisconsin DOT, using their growth models they anticipate traffic flow would deteriorate to an “F” rating by 2035. Just like in high school, an “F” rating isn’t very good.

Bicycle path proponents like to point out that the average speed would be reduced to 50 mph, the current speed limit on the bridge. While this may be correct, they act as if the times when the traffic does not achieve the average is not a big deal. As the Wisconsin DOT points out, the drop in average speed is because of the increased density of the traffic, creating more unsafe conditions for motorists and decreasing the reliability of the Hoan Bridge as a connection for commuters to the larger interstate traffic system.

The commuter that finds the traffic route unreliable may have to make more drastic considerations than the recreational bicyclist who enjoys bicycling the Hoan for the view. A person who depends on the Hoan to connect to I-94 for a job in Wauwatosa or Menomonee Falls is not going to feel good about watching bicyclists occupy an entire traffic lane if their daily commute may be severely curtailed randomly, or if they themselves are the subject of the morning accident reports.

Commuters placed in such a situation may have to consider whether living in Bay View and points south is worth it, or if there is a preferable alternative that promises an easier commute.

The ease of commute is not just a hypothetical situation for the Wisconsin DOT to consider. As the draft executive summary of the bicycle path feasibility study says of the “F” rating, “The latter result is below WisDOT’s acceptable design year standard of LOS ‘D’ for Milwaukee County freeways. These conditions would worsen over the 50+ year life of the investment.”

Making matters worse for commuters dependent on the Hoan Bridge, the creation of a combined pedestrian/bicycle path on the Hoan Bridge will actually add to the period the bridge is being repaired.

The Wisconsin DOT also notes that response times by emergency vehicles using the Hoan Bridge will get worse as a result of the higher traffic density.

The traffic impediment would be below the DOT’s standard, and would only get worse. The bicycle and pedestrian path would defeat the entire purpose of having the Hoan Bridge in the first place. This is what is considered the politically feasible plan.

Let’s also put the price tag of the proposed bicycle and pedestrian path into some perspective. The cheapest plan is $9.4 million. That one bicycle project would cost nearly as much as the city of Milwaukee intends to spend ($11.3 million) on it’s entire bicycle infrastructure plan for the next ten years. The $9.4 million only sounds reasonable when compared to the fantastic numbers of the other options. Remember, we’re talking about a 2 mile bike path here.

In addition to the infrastructure costs of adding a bicycle lane, the Wisconsin DOT will also be responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the bicycle path, including snow removal. Unless, of course, the bicycling enthusiasts in favor of the path across the Hoan Bridge plan on volunteering to shovel the snow from the bike path themselves. (Remember kids, no shoveling salty snow into the lake!)

The maintenance of the bicycle and pedestrian path across the Hoan Bridge will also require periodic shut downs of the remaining right lane of traffic. Let’s face it, only a very few of the most avid cyclists will endeavor to scale the windy incline of the Hoan during the (generously) four months of Milwaukee’s harsh winters.

Of course, it’s not like there is not already an alternative to bicycling the Hoan Bridge. Bicyclists are already expected to use nearby 2nd street to get to and from downtown. Granted, the view from 2nd street isn’t nearly as impressive as it is from the top of the Hoan Bridge, but at least on 2nd street you get a nice view of the bridge.

Proponents of the bicycle path love to point to other iconic bridges that have mixed use. However, the Hoan Bridge was not built for mixed use. It was built for automobile traffic. The Wisconsin DOT has a responsibility to defend the bridge’s primary function, especially given the price tag for the proposed recreational use and it’s hindrance of vehicular traffic.

It’s unfortunate federal and state requirements of considering mixed use traffic for transportation projects except in extraordinary circumstances cause the state to have to go through this exercise. However, it’s hard to imagine that extraordinary circumstances are not readily apparent in the case of repairing the Hoan Bridge.