There is an old joke that northern states like Wisconsin have two seasons: winter and construction. But work on Milwaukee’s Marquette Interchange Project is proving that highway construction can be undertaken year-round. With a completion date set for 2008, the massive construction endeavor involves a complete overhaul of Wisconsin’s largest and most notorious highway interchange.
Connecting three different interstates (I-94, I-43, and I-794) at the southern edge of Milwaukee’s downtown, the “old” Marquette Interchange was already a massive conglomeration of concrete. Part of the stacked highway interchange has been known as the “high rise” due to its elevated approach into downtown. The challenge of creating a safe, well-engineered, attractive set of ramps and roads connecting three major highways would be tough enough in an expansive new community. Imagine working within the confines of a tightly packed downtown and an outdated interchange already in use by heavy traffic.
The original Marquette Interchange was completed in 1966 after years of extensive planning, land right proceedings, and laborious construction. Officials during the 1950s had recognized the need for a strong downtown artery due to ever-increasing automobile traffic and the growth of (particularly southern and western) suburbs. The original interchange, though, has now outgrown its design capacity, and government planners acknowledged that the now-dangerous infrastructure was inadequate and in disrepair. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation states on www.mchange.org that, by 2000, the old Marquette Interchange was seeing more than 300,000 vehicles per day – more than twice the number intended.
With years of data and experience to evaluate, urban planners, engineers, and policymakers were able to identify a number of problems with the old Marquette Interchange that needed to be addressed in a reconstruction project. Heavily traveled exit ramps were especially narrow (usually one lane), and their curves were quite sharp. Dramatic lane shifts were sometimes necessary due to the location of exit ramps. Traffic did not flow between highways and often caused dangerous lines of entering and exiting vehicles. Facing not just congestion but also serious accidents, the planners made sure these existing problems were addressed by a new Marquette Interchange.
Though the work will run until 2008 (and possibly later, since large-scale construction projects rarely end on time), Milwaukee residents are already talking about the benefits of the new interchange. More space is being allotted between some exits so that entering and exiting traffic does not conflict. Some ramps, like the ones between I-94 and I-43, are being broadened to two lanes because they carry heavy traffic loads. On other ramps, the sharpness of curves is being reduced so that drivers have “longer” vision and can maintain speed more effectively. The elimination of left-side exits and entrances is especially welcome; all to-and-from connections will begin and end on the right side of the road, reducing unsafe lane shifting. And one entire ramp loop is being eliminated so that a potentially useful piece of land between Clybourn Street and Michigan Avenue can be redeveloped.
The practical benefits of the new Marquette Interchange are not the only up-sides to the construction, however. Overpass bridges, iron railings, underpass pillars, holding walls, and other functional parts of the infrastructure are designed to be attractive, visually appealing structures. Toned concrete with simple decorative grooves is being used to create a spacious and airy feeling – to the extent that such a feeling is possible with a massive highway project. The goal is to have the transportation infrastructure be visually congruent with the urban context through which it runs.
Milwaukee residents were even polled to determine which aesthetic designs they found most appealing. Because spires were considered a notable part of the Milwaukee cityscape, planners used spire-like vertical elements in their designs. This type of feedback-planning is touted by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation as “community-sensitive design.” Student art (including hand-painted tiles) is being used on bridges that connect traditionally African American residential areas along I-43. These attempts to involve affected Milwaukee residents in the design are aimed at creating greater investment and pride in the construction – and ultimately in the city itself. An attractive downtown highway system, with accoutrements visible from both the street level and the road below, can tip the urban image in a positive direction.
Weighing in at over $800 million, the new Marquette Interchange comes with a hefty pricetag. But in addition to the benefits of improved safety, smoother traffic flow, and better aesthetics, the project also gains some notoriety for being a model construction undertaking. Beyond just the community-sensitive design elements, the project gains some new ground in the realm of national urban highway redesign. Communication between the planners, the business community, and the public has been extensive since the project’s inception. Visit the www.mchange.org website and see the multimedia approach for conveying project details and making life during construction more bearable.
Email and desktop traffic updates are available for those with a hankering for highway news on-demand. Milwaukee County Transit System has also been heavily involved in the impact reduction. Offering bus services to mollify the construction-related traffic problems, MCTS is gaining ridership at a critical time. Park-and-ride lots in the city’s outskirts, supplemented by expanded “Flyer” bus schedules, are helping to reduce commuter congestion in and out of the downtown.
And individual driver concerns are not the only issues being addressed by the project’s leaders. The construction effort also features an extensive set of programs addressing business and labor issues, including the plight of impacted downtown commercial zones. The grand scale of the Marquette Interchange Project means that people from across Southeastern Wisconsin are coming together to discuss the construction and its impact for both the downtown and the surrounding metro area. The project is long and difficult, but the region’s buy-in is substantial.
The case for the Marquette Interchange project was well-made by both members of the community and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. As the construction unfolds and Milwaukee’s downtown reframes its highways, city residents can see the roads to revitalization being paved before their eyes.
Comprehensive Marquette Interchange Project Website: www.mchange.org
Milwaukee County Transit System (Public Buses): www.ridemcts.com
Wisconsin Department of Transpotation (WisDOT): www.dot.state.wi.us
Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.milwaukee.org
Milwaukee Downtown Business and Development Information: www.milwaukeedowntown.com
Portal for Milwaukee City and County Information: www.milwaukee.gov