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Hoan preservation comes with hefty paint price

Sean Ryan

Milwaukee’s Hoan Bridge will cost the state millions of dollars for maintenance work if planners choose to keep the structure rather than tearing it down.

It will cost millions alone just to slap a new coat of paint on the 35-year-old highway bridge, said Bruce Carow, Wisconsin Department of Transportation chief structural maintenance engineer. Because the span crosses the Milwaukee River, painters must take extra care not to let any paint drip into the water, he said.

“It’s the same for all of our bridges,” Carow said. “Nothing goes in the air. Nothing goes in the water. So we would have a containment around our entire painting operation.”

To paint the underside of the highway, crews must build steel and plywood platforms to hang under the highway, he said. Then workers must wrap the entire work area in a huge canvas tent to prevent any paint from escaping. Other tents would be built around the yellow steel arches that give the Hoan its signature profile.

But the repainting project represents just one cost state officials must weigh when considering whether to preserve the Hoan or tear it down, said Pete Beitzel, vice president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. All of those expenses put together should be reason enough for state planners to consider all of the options, including demolition, before making a decision on the Hoan, he said.

But Milwaukee County Supervisor Patricia Jursik said the state committed to pay maintenance costs for the Hoan Bridge when the structure was built in the early 1970s. She said state planners should not even study the cost of demolishing the Hoan because it should not be torn down.

“Once the bridge was built, I think everybody was understanding it would last more than 30 years,” Jursik said.

The paint the Wisconsin Department of Transportation uses on highway bridges lasts more than 20 years, Carow said. But the Hoan, which was built in the early 1970s, will need a new coat if it is resurfaced instead of demolished.

Beitzel and Jursik agreed it would cost less to rebuild the highway decks on the Hoan than it would to tear it down and replace it with an at-grade roadway or a shorter highway bridge.

But state planners must compare the long-term maintenance costs of both options, Beitzel said.

“You could do a chart to figure out over 50 to 75 years how much this would cost,” he said.

Both options should be studied, said Tom Rave, executive director of the Airport Gateway Business Association. But Rave, who supports preserving the Hoan Bridge, said the state also must weigh the economic-development benefits of each plan.

An at-grade roadway would slow traffic heading from downtown Milwaukee to General Mitchell International Airport, for instance, he said. What is the economic hit the city would take if it can no longer use the Hoan to offer a vista of the downtown to travelers leaving the airport to visit Milwaukee for the first time, he said.

“That’s the kind of thing that’s tough to put an economic number on,” he said. “But impressions and first impressions are very important.”


  1. I believe the Hoan is an anachronism, built for a freeway never constructed. We don’t need a bridge suspended above our sewage treatment plant, and it’s not that crucial to have easy access to Bay View.

  2. An at-grade crossing would also wreak havoc with the operations of the Port of Milwaukee which currently moves huge cranes beneath I-794 to service several terminals. Milwaukee was settled as an important port and remains a key economic contributor to our economy, so it is far more than just slowing traffic into downtown or giving visitors a nice panorama of the harbor — operating the Port of Milwaukee is an economic necessity for the economic vitality of Southeastern Wisconsin.

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