Doing some research for a story for my part-time job with Public News Service, I ran across several reliable reports indicating that at least half of Wisconsin’s roads are substandard. Not that you could tell from the concrete and steel extravaganzas like the recent work in Madison, pictured above, re-engineering and rebuilding the Beltline – Verona Road interchange.
They must have poured a million cubic yards of concrete rebuilding that monstrosity. I drive through that interchange three or four times every week. It’s now far safer, easier to navigate, and quicker. But it meant two years of constantly changing lane assignments and bewildered drivers who couldn't figure out where to go, which exit to take.
However, if you drive just a few miles outside of Madison, and all the new interchanges that have been built on the Beltline in the past decade, you’ll find roads that are literally falling apart. News stories abound from counties which are actually considering going back to gravel roads, ala Iowa, because they can’t maintain their paved roads.
This is a topic that grinds the gears of a lot of rural Wisconsinites, who see the untold millions of dollars being spent on freeway interchanges in Madison and Milwaukee, and the big road bucks spent in the Fox Valley, while their own county roads are disintegrating. It fuels the rural/urban divide that’s dominated politics in the Badger state for the past decade or so.
A bit of history.
So far as I’m concerned, the biggest visionary when it comes to roads in Wisconsin is Tommy G. Thompson, the state’s most-popular-ever Governor, who in 1988 championed his “Corridors 2020” plan, to improve Wisconsin’s roads -and I mean roads all over the state- with a goal of helping the state’s businesses and tourism flourish. When I moved back to Wisconsin from Los Angeles in 1988, Highway 151, the road from Madison to the place where I was born and raised - the Fox Valley - was mostly two-lane concrete, and it was falling apart.
Now, of course, 151 is a divided four-lane thoroughfare from Dubuque to Fond du Lac. Tommy’s vision was for good, safe roads, in every part of the state, to help farmers and merchants get their products to market.
On my way up to the Fox Valley last week, I passed through the construction zone on I-41 where they’re rebuilding the entire I-41-441 interchange (above). One thing is certain; our state’s traffic engineers are in love with those “flyover” ramps. They’re everywhere along I-41 from Oshkosh to Green Bay. Years ago, when the Highway 441 bridge over Little Lake Butte des Mortes was built, we called it “The Polish Connection” because it linked Higway 41 with the town and city of Menasha, home to a lot of ‘sconnies of proud Polish heritage.
Now, the interchange is a huge tangle of flyover ramps, connector ramps, lane dividers, and enough concrete and steel to build a medium-size city.
The photo above was the bane of my existence for a couple years – the Marquette interchange in Milwaukee, a hopeless tangle of roads and exits, similar to what they’re now doing with the Zoo interchange in Milwaukee. Every time we’d visit my son and his wife and our granddaughter, when they lived in Milwaukee, I’d have to navigate this concrete monstrosity. Even as one who cut his teeth on southern California freeways, I would white-knuckle it as I had to go through the Zoo interchange construction, and then battle for lane-changes through the Marquette interchange.
Politicians in this state have evolved from public servants with a part-time job in the legislature in Madison, to full-time diners at the public trough, secure in their posts because of the worst gerrymandering in the nation, and with no fear of being defeated by an opponent from the other party. The guv, who is constantly running either for President or his next term, is an ideologue who thinks it’s OK to borrow, borrow, borrow for road construction projects, but God forbid he should agree to raise the gas tax a few cents to help maintain roads in rural Wisconsin, lest some future challenger say “he RAISED taxes!!!”
Even members of Governor Walker’s own party are now starting to realize the shortsightedness of this inane partisanship when it comes to our state’s infrastructure, and there are clear signs of unrest among the Republican ranks.
Our state has a tradition of elected leaders who made their reputation with roads and bridges. Back in the early 60’s state representative Cletus Vanderperren proudly wore the nickname “Concrete Clete” because of his propensity to support every project the state’s road-builders would come up with. In 1967, Don Tilleman ran for mayor of Green Bay on the platform that it was time to build a bridge to connect the east and west side of Titletown. People called him “Don The Bridge Tilleman” and now, the Mason Street Bridge in Green Bay bears his name.
Concrete Clete and Don The Bridge are rolling in their graves, disgusted that a state once so progressive in building infrastructure now can only seem to throw its resources at building monstrous interchanges around the state’s bigger cities, while allowing the rest of our rural roads and bridges to crumble.