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Bridge debate centers on county entitlements

Dustin Block

Outagamie County is asking the state for clarification on money set aside for a $7.5 million bridge to a 6-acre island.

County officials said they are planning to meet with Frank Busalacchi, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, about the bridge project in the village of Little Chute.

The village is scheduled to receive $6 million in federal bridge aids to replace a defunct lift bridge that crosses the Fox River to an island with a little-used park on it, said Little Chute Village President Charles Fisher.

But the money — secured by U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wis., and state Rep. Tom Nelson, D-Kimberly — would count against Outagamie County’s annual bridge entitlement budget and would delay bridge repairs on other county bridges for up to 14 years, said Al Geurts, Outagamie County highway commissioner.

Geurts said he thought he received permission from state officials to seize the money set aside for the Little Chute bridge and use it for other county bridge repairs.

But WisDOT concluded the village controlled the $6 million and could use the money how it wanted, Fisher said.

WisDOT officials might be misinterpreting how the money was intended to be used, Geurts said. Village and county officials want their meeting with Busalacchi to lead to the village retaining use of the money without counting against the county’s bridge entitlements, Geurts said.

“I’ve never believed this was a local problem,” he said.

Fisher said a heated meeting with the county March 9 cleared the air and ended with the two governments agreeing to work together. Now, he said, he wants the village to help the county resolve the issue.

“It’s all a misunderstanding,” Fisher said. “We just have to get together and figure out what the heck we’re talking about.”

Little Chute needs the bridge money to replace the 80-year-old bridge that is the only access to its island park. While there’s little on the island now, the village wants to convince a developer to build an 80-unit, $15 million condominium development there.

The village also needs to rebuild the bridge to let boats pass underneath. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is rebuilding locks along the Fox River to eventually allow boat traffic between Lake Winnebago and Green Bay. The southern portion of the river is scheduled to open for boat traffic this summer.

Little Chute’s problem is if it removes the bridge without building a new structure, the village would not receive the $6 million in federal money for the project, Fisher said. That would basically shut down access to the island, he said.

“We wouldn’t do it,” Fisher said about the village picking up the entire cost of the bridge.

Meanwhile, Grand Chute Chairman Mike Marsden said he is watching the dispute with trepidation. If money for the Little Chute bridge comes out of the county’s bridge entitlement budget, Grand Chute would be assessed $250,000 for the project. Under the entitlement program, towns and villages in a county pay a portion of bridge projects.

Marsden said it makes little sense for Grand Chute to pay for Little Chute’s “bridge to nowhere.”

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