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Milwaukee trying to bridge money gap

Traffic passes over the Michigan Street lift bridge on Monday in Milwaukee. The city of Milwaukee has received less money from a state assistance program in recent years due to increased competition and a history of receiving significant awards. The bridge would have been eligible for assistance, but the city no longer expects to receive help on expensive moveable bridge repairs. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Traffic passes over the Michigan Street Bridge on Monday in Milwaukee. The city of Milwaukee has received less money from a state assistance program in recent years due to increased competition and a history of receiving significant awards. The bridge would have been eligible for assistance, but the city no longer expects to receive help on expensive moveable bridge repairs. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Increased competition for state grants has forced the city of Milwaukee to pay more for bridge projects.

Craig Liberto, Milwaukee’s structural design manager, said the city received about $3.5 million in 2012 from the state’s Local Bridge Improvement Assistance program. The city received about $1.3 million for projects scheduled in 2015, he said.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation administers the assistance program, the grants from which cover 80 percent of the costs for selected bridge projects. Counties submit applications on behalf of municipalities, which pay the remaining 20 percent.

One requirement for a bridge to be eligible for the program is that it must be labeled deficient, meaning it has structural problems or is obsolete, according to WisDOT’s administrative code.

But the agency, according to the code, also considers whether a county already has received significant assistance, and that amount of assistance is used to calculate either a positive or negative entitlement, a benchmark carried over from year to year.

Bob Reed, the assistance program’s interim manager, said project grants decrease a county’s entitlement. If a county does not receive assistance, the entitlement increases.

The metric helps the state track where the money goes, he said, and ensures a county does not siphon money from its neighbors.

Milwaukee County has a negative entitlement of $12,058,000, Reed said.

The only way to chip away at a negative entitlement is to not apply for assistance.

“It’s the same case that every county has,” Reed said. “It’s not designed to alleviate all of the bridge needs of all the counties.”

But the system is flawed, Liberto said.

The city received more than its fair share in the past, he said, but now is being penalized to make up for it. In his 2015 capital request, submitted to the Capital Improvements Committee on Monday, Liberto included two projects that meet WisDOT’s deficiency criteria.

Those projects are the first phase of repairs for the South First Street bascule bridge over the Kinnickinnic River and designing repairs for the Michigan Street Bridge over the Milwaukee River. Liberto estimated the 2015 portions of those projects combined would cost $6.6 million.

Eighty percent of those costs would be $5.28 million.

But, Liberto said, the city did not receive a state grant for the South First Street bridge and did not apply for the Michigan Street one, knowing the state would not approve it. The city applied for the South First Street bridge, he said, just to remind the state that the need exists.

“Now we’re asking city taxpayers,” Liberto said, “to pay 100 percent of the cost of the rehab versus 20 percent.”

Ghassan Korban, commissioner of Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works, said the decrease in state bridge assistance began about three years ago. He attributed the reduction partially to an increase in interest from smaller municipalities.

The city now has to fill the gap, Korban said.

“Basically, we stepped up the local funding,” he said, “because the need did not go away.”

Korban, a member of Milwaukee’s Capital Improvements Committee, said it is too soon to say where the city will find the money for future bridge projects.

But Alderman Nik Kovac, also a committee member, said the city probably will be forced to take money away from a different project that needs money.

“In the name of, quote, fairness, they’re trying to spread the money around the state,” he said.

But infrastructure spending should be based solely on present need, Kovac said, not on past awards.

“They actually made things decidedly less fair,” he said, “and not even less fair, but less respondent to the facts.”

About Beth Kevit

Beth Kevit is the Milwaukee city beat reporter and also covers real estate. She can be reached at beth.kevit@dailyreporter.com or 414-225-1820.

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