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Hoan Bridge fix prompts more road vs. rail debate (PHOTO SLIDE SHOW)

The Hoan Bridge stands in Milwaukee. A request to shift money earmarked for high-speed rail to make repairs on the bridge has rekindled debate over how to pay for road and bridge maintenance. (Photo by Corey Hengen)

The Hoan Bridge stands in Milwaukee. A request to shift money earmarked for high-speed rail to make repairs on the bridge has rekindled debate over how to pay for road and bridge maintenance. (Photo by Corey Hengen)

By Paul Snyder

A request to shift federal high-speed rail money to repair the Hoan Bridge is reigniting the road vs. rail debate, despite the inquiring lawmakers’ insistence it’s not an either/or matter.

“To me it’s just about priorities,” said state Sen. Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee. “If you’ve got a hard asset that’s falling apart, you fix it.”

Plale and state Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, on Wednesday asked members from Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to shift $250 million from the $810 million in federal stimulus money awarded to Wisconsin for a high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison to repair the crumbling bridge in Milwaukee.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation last month requested bids for netting under the 33-year-old bridge after discovering concrete pieces that fell off the structure.

Plale said he knows asking federal lawmakers to redirect money earmarked for high-speed rail is a tall order, but fixing the bridge is more crucial.

“A train would be nice, and maybe someday it will be possible,” he said. “But in the real world you have to look at what’s the priority and that’s this bridge in desperate need of repair. I would hope that lawmakers still have some common sense and can decide what is the highest and best use of stimulus money.”

David Frey, spokesman for Congresswoman Gwen Moore, D-Wis., said the high-speed rail money cannot be shifted.

“If the funding isn’t used as applied for, it won’t be used in Wisconsin,” he said. “It will go to another state for use there.”

Frey cited California, New York and Florida as examples of other states that could use Wisconsin’s share of stimulus money for high-speed rail projects of their own.

Frey said Moore supports using federal highway financing programs to repair the bridge, and that Wisconsin can use annual Federal Highway Administration dollars or the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program.

To state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, the Hoan Bridge problems highlight the need for lawmakers to find new revenue sources for transportation.

Wisconsin uses vehicle registration fees and gas taxes to finance transportation projects, but that money has been short in recent years. In addition to shifting transportation money in many state budgets to nontransportation programs, state lawmakers in 2006 repealed gas-tax indexing, an annual gas tax adjustment that keeps pace with inflation and fuel consumption.

Roys, who was not a lawmaker in 2006, called that a “fiscally dumb move,” and said the state needs to come up with new ideas to finance road, bridge and rail projects.

The transportation budget faces an estimated $30 million deficit.

Terry McGowan, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, said he supports more money for highway work, but does not oppose the high-speed rail line.

“I’ve got a lot of bridge builders out of work,” he said. “I was happy to see the high-speed money come in, because there’s a long, 1.3-mile bridge proposed on that route, which would be great for us.”

Shifting rail money to repair the Hoan Bridge could just lead to future financing problems, McGowan said.

“It’s like the story of the little boy that used his finger to plug a leak in a dike,” he said. “You plug one hole and another one sprouts.”


If the state cannot afford to finance high-speed rail for another few years because of a shift, Sinicki said Wisconsin can handle the wait.

“Chunks are coming off the bridge,” she said, “and people are worried.”

But if Wisconsin cannot use the high-speed rail project to fix the Hoan Bridge, Plale said state lawmakers need to come up with alternatives quickly.

“I don’t know the inner-workings of federal government, nor do I want to know,” he said. “I know there will be folks who will absolutely dig in their heels and who don’t want to put any money into roads, but we need to raise the discussion to the next level.

“There are pieces of concrete falling off the most noticeable bridge in the state’s largest city.”


  1. Let’s be real honest here. The Hoan Bridge is a great roadway that thousands use every day. It makes moving around Milwaukee much easier. Fix it now!
    Fixing it is the best idea. It’s the least expensive way to go. Trains are a thing of the past and as you could expect, backed by dinasaur, living in the old ages Democrats.
    Any time a Democrate touches something, someone either loses their life or something breaks, fails or costs more. If what investigators are saying is true,
    Democrat supported bully Union contractors can’t even put up a concrete facade properly at the O’Donnel Parking Garage. I say, “Buy non-union and American”.

  2. Trains today are as modern as tomorrow, and the Franz Kafka-esque exercise in denial above sounds like a Big Oil lie from one of the several noisy right-wing extremist groups we’ve seen lately. One of these calls itself “Americans for Prosperity”, but it’s a hardcore front organization linked to the oil industry and the Tea Party and headed by David Koch, the 19th-wealthiest man in the world who runs Koch Industries, the largest privately held oil company in the United States. Front-groups like this so-called AFP and others run phony grassroots campaigns that promote corporate interests, and in this case it’s oil, of which trains use very little.

    If that did originate from “Americans for Prosperity”, it wouldn’t be surprising; it’s an oil-industry billionaires club portraying its insiders as average middle-class Americans. Their president is Tim Phillips, who got his start with a firm called Century Strategies which rallied followers into lobbying for energy deregulation for their client, Enron. Tim Phillips and Ralph Reed later found fame in the Jack Abramoff scandal, for lobbying against gambling in areas where they had clients with competing gambling interests. They’re corporate-interest pros who get paid to create the illusion of grass-roots movements to support their own interests, professional P.R. operatives – spinmasters who generate exploitative, manufactured, strategically deployed outrage who get paid a lot of money for doing it. The corporations they work for try to kill legislation that would hurt their profits by getting Tea Partiers and other uneducated types to make lots of noise on the premise that the system is broken and doesn’t work in the interest of the American people. But their system works very well in the interests of the corporations that fund them and profit from the way they want things to be. It’s masterful, professional, corporate-funded and well-staffed P.R.

    Of *course* this “Americans For Prosperity” and other Big Oil front groups don’t want trains! Trains carry lots of people economically and burn only a tiny percentage of the oil we’re burning now.

  3. “Trains are things of the past” – in Milwaukee. But only because we are a backwater where the modern world has yet to make many inroads, and because people here have not seen anything else. The same folks who slam the Obama Administration for the ‘wasteful’ $8 billion in limited high-speed rail development should wake up to the fact that China is spending $250 billion. And now these ‘government can’t do anything right’ types are begging the government to bail them out? We are seriously backward in this country , and are headed more into the auto past all the time, unable to even maintain the roads we have already built. That’s called unsustainable.

    Some kind of a crazy, liberal idea? Not so much. One of the newest commuter rail lines is the FrontRunner in Salt Lake City. Forget liberals… There, the state Democratic Party can hold it’s convention in the back room of a Cracker Barrel Restaurant, but they have commuter rail, supported by conservatives, and it is very popular. No one will use a commuter train? That statement is currently wrong 1,429,633 times a year in Salt Lake. Mormonville also has a light rail system; a system that costs just $0.39 per passenger mile to run, as opposed to Salt Lake’s bus system, where it costs $0.61 per passenger mile. The new commuter rail there costs $0.41 per passenger mile.

    Oh, but that’s not Milwaukee, where the Walker gang has stripped every cent they can from public transit, making it ‘cost effective,’ right? Except that it costs $0.88 per passenger mile to run buses here in Brewtown. Darned good thing we don’t have tough operating conditions like Salt Lake’s deserts and mountains, or it’d be even more. The fact is that rail saves them money. Lots of money, and every year. Construction costs are one time payments – operating expenses go on forever.

    Check these numbers yourself:

    Rail is a waste of money? Really? A University of Minnesota study showed that auto drivers pay only 55% of direct costs of highways – forget all of the indirect costs like tire disposal, pollution, snow removal and all of that. The rest comes out of other funds. Riders on the Amtrak Hiawatha cover about 67% of expenses. Fully 93% of the Wisconsin DOT budget goes to highway or debt service for highway bonds. Dropping all of the state’s minimal rail programs would save a whopping 0.35% of the annual transportation budget ($6.5 million of a $3.4 billion annual budget), and add well over a million extra auto trips to the state’s overburdened roads. Roads that those drivers only pay 55% of maintaining – you pay the rest.

  4. Divide and conquer again. We can have good roads and great public transportation if we want it. Actually, we need both. An integrated system of transportation allows people to get where they want to go cheaply and efficiently with the smallest carbon imprint. People that believe it has to be one or the other have been influenced by a lot of misinformation.
    We do spend a lot f money on roads. It’s our climate and the nature of the beast that demands constant attention. What we don’t need is new four lane and larger roads running parallel to each other so that somebody can save ten minutes on their commute. We need to fix the roads and bridges that we have, such as the Hoen.
    But we also need to construct the rest of the system. Rail, bus, bike trails and pedestrian right of way is part of any first class city or region in the world. None of the growing and prosperous area’s of our country or any other for that matter depends entirely on automobile transportation.
    The road lobby and other would have you believe tha troads are free. That hey are paid for by the gas tax. That is untrue in a major way.
    Some politicians will tell you we can’t afford it. That is because they have to fund it and they are afraid if they do they will lose their offices.
    I’m telling you we need it and as long as the opposition postions this as zero sum game, mass transit vs roads, than everybody loses.

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