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9 Biking Projects for Milwaukee’s Next Mayor
What are some of the projects an “urbanist mayor” could take on? Guest story from Jake Newborn and Caressa Givens of the Wisconsin Bike Fed.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
The mayoral primary winner, Cavalier Johnson, is running a campaign to be an “urbanist mayor.” So, what are some urbanist projects he could take on if elected to serve out this term? We asked the folks at the Wisconsin Bike Fed for a list of projects and policies the next mayor of Milwaukee could address in the years to come.
Guest article by Jake Newborn and Caressa Givens, Wisconsin Bike Federation
Making investments in urban infrastructure can have an immediate impact on creating safer streets in Milwaukee. It’s good not only for people walking, biking, and taking transit, but good for our larger community in Milwaukee, and creates safer situations for vulnerable people in the city.
Improving biking infrastructure isn’t just about finding a better, safer route, either. Biking is already a huge part of Wisconsin’s economy, and reducing reckless driving, improving street safety, and increasing the number of people walking and biking is good for business.
Already in the pipeline, there are good pop-up and pilot projects that can and should be implemented as quickly as the Department of Public Works (DPW) can get them done. But there are other larger-scale permanent infrastructure projects that would create greater connectivity across Milwaukee.
There are some non-infrastructure policy changes that can be implemented almost immediately, for Milwaukee to get the most out of the federal funding that’s on the way. And while the city has become increasingly forthrite about the scope of projects and sharing clear ways to provide feedback, the current prioritization level the city has for any single project is unknown. One example is the Van Buren Street project, which has much-improved facilities designs in early plans (yay!), but this came out of nowhere.
So, looking ahead, these are the top street and trail, pro-people projects for the next mayor.
See a project in your area or one that you would love to see happen? Links in the projects listed below will send you to the comments page (if it has one). Write a supportive comment to advocate for safer facilities for vulnerable users that make our city a better place. Write to your alderperson and your county supervisor. Tell them you support the project. Bring these up on Twitter and at the local tavern, but make sure folks know these are happening and let’s rally for a safer Milwaukee!
1. Update the 2010 Master Bike plan and mandate our Complete Streets policy
The city adopted a Master Bike Plan in 2010. While the number of striped bicycle lanes has dramatically increased since then, higher-quality cycling facilities serving all ages and abilities, such as bicycle boulevards and separated cycle tracks, have not been implemented comprehensively.
While the Bike Fed and its community partners are proud to have contributed to the writing and adoption of the Complete Streets policy in 2018––we have witnessed a stagnancy from DPW leadership to ensure the entire department is following the resolution. Therefore, we believe it would serve our city best to mandate the Complete Streets policy, increase staffing, and for the mayor to evaluate the leadership more prepared to drastically shift the culture of expectation to produce safer and healthier streets. These efforts would also help when working with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT).
The new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes a provision that allows locally-adapted guidelines to override state guidelines for projects on streets that are under city control. The city can, at times, be hamstrung by state guidelines when looking at more advanced facilities on state-owned roads.
We are unaware of how impactful the policy changes in BIL will be as several states and GOP members are actively telling their DOTs not to follow the guidance. Standing up to WisDOT to demand the changes our city wants on our streets is something any mayor will have to take on. The mayor must ensure that the leader of DPW has the tools they need and devote sufficient resources to meet the legislative requirements of any safe streets policy. So while the city fights to make a safer, multi-modal National Avenue (State HWY 59, more on this later), they can improve local roads with more than just painted lines.
2. Increase staff capacity at the Department of Public Works
Milwaukee needs to increase multi-modal department staff or subcontracting partnerships to apply for, plan, and execute projects in the pipeline and apply for new grants through the BIL.
While this also depends on bidding, contractors' abilities to build, and a variety of other issues, a large part of being able to accomplish these goals sooner is the ability to have enough support within the city department. We need the manpower to be able to apply for and plan the projects coming through the influx of funding to Wisconsin. If Milwaukee can’t handle an increased workflow, we will miss out on opportunities. More engineers who understand how to make actual “Complete Streets” and improved bike facilities, along with adding forward thinkers across DPW, is a real need. Who will be the new DPW commissioner is the first step the new mayor needs to tackle.
With a scope of 1st Street to 39th Street, this project can define a generation of activity and growth along National Avenue. But as a state-owned highway and oversized truck route, this one will not be easy.
Already in the planning process, now is the time to voice concerns on preferred design options and put pressure on the city to make the right changes. The next mayor needs to be a strong advocate for the corridor to combat the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s often misguided priorities. Making changes to these state-owned roads, where 45% of bicycle fatalities occur, would be a huge step to make travel safer and more enjoyable.
This project, creating a vibrant multi-modal corridor, is set for construction in 2025. The elephant in the room is the intersection with highway 175, but if the city can do W. Lisbon to match W. Walnut Ave while continuing to work on the connections in between, it has a chance to improve on street routes immensely. This also would make an easier connection from the Menomonee River Parkway to downtown. More than 80% of the streets, from Pleasant Street to 100th Street, are city-operated. Changes here can be made relatively easily while working to long term tackle the I75 off ramp issues.
5. Vliet Street
This project would connect Washington Park to King Park and then to Fiserv Forum. Vliet Street features barely-used on street parking for long stretches and a very wide cross section, making this street primed to be improved.
The struck-down MLS funding slowed this project when the state Supreme Court overturned that funding source, but it’s on the radar for DPW. Getting this project into the planning stages soon would vastly improve a west side-to-downtown route. There have been some calls for North Avenue to get protected bike lanes, but Vliet combined with the in-process Lisbon/Walnut projects appear to be much closer than North Ave to becoming a reality. In 2019, Vliet from 12th to 27th was cleaned up using high-impact repaving. A longer-term solution with more advanced measures should be a priority in the coming years.
Rails to Trails is doing a lot of great work with the Route of the Badger to connect the various trail systems across all of Southeast Wisconsin. Almost any of these are worthy of starting as soon as possible; the few we note here can immediately connect thousands of homes with access to off-street trail options for recreation and transportation.
This is probably the largest-scale and most important project in Milwaukee to increase access for biking from an equity standpoint.
Connecting the neighborhoods north of Menomonee Valley to the Hank Aaron Trail, stretching to Havenwoods is a project that the next mayor should see to move forward. This is a long-term scope, but as we’ve seen in Milwaukee, our mayors tend to be around for a while.
Still mired in issues with railroad permission and ownership, it might be six years until a draft plan is produced. This doesn't mean that the current mayor and community shouldn’t be pushing to advance this project as soon as possible and throw some weight behind it. Perhaps something breaks through and the timeline shifts, but as of now, this is still years away. Still, work moves forward and this should be a priority. A grant has been secured to study this corridor and develop an equitable plan to ensure displacement of current residents doesn't have unintended consequences.
7. Kinnickinnic River Trail extension
This would involve the KKRT extension and Wilson Creek connections. This project from the 16th St. to 27th St. section has been funded through grants overseen by Milwaukee County, and is broken up into sections that have taken some time to fully connect. But, by focusing on each section at a time, Milwaukee could emerge with a beautiful route along the river, through neighborhoods that would connect Jackson Park to the Harbor District.
This effort is primarily paired with river restoration efforts, so creative funding that may not be included in the project scope might be necessary. The connections from Lincoln Ave. to Maple access are improving with protected bike lanes that are planned for S 1st St.
Property ownership and the bridge being replaced over Lincoln Ave. are longer-term issues that would be great to resolve. Advancing planning and inclusion of the southern connection to Wilson Creek and then on to the Howard Avenue Powerline Trail would immediately – much like the 30th St. corridor – increase connections to thousands of homes.
Greenfield is moving forward on construction with their connection to this trail this summer, from 60th St. to I-41.
The portion from 60th St. to 35th St. is already funded and should start to see design drafts in the next year or so. The portion from 35th St. to the St. Francis border, then to the Oak Leaf Trail on Lake Michigan, will be trickier. We Energies may prove easier to work with than railroad companies to gain access to these corridors, but the connection should be a priority.
This trail project could connect on the western Oak Leaf Trail and Root River up to Greenfield Park. From there, you can then get on the New Berlin Trail and then the Glacial Drumlin. When completed, you could ride on an off-street trail all the way from Sheridan Park to Madison!
There are more than a handful of these in the city’s current Bike Plan. We’ve seen Fratney St. in Riverwest be completed, and Washington Street and Scott Street on the south side are in final planning stages with construction on the horizon.
While some in the community don’t think Fratney St. went far enough, these may present the best opportunity to improve neighborhood micro-connections to amenities like parks, shopping, and schools. That’s particularly the case if paired with “Safe Routes to School”- focused infrastructure projects funded through Transportation Alternatives grants. Every child at Milwaukee Public Schools should be able to safely walk or cycle to their neighborhood school.
Generally, these have smaller budgets and can accomplish a calmer traffic route off of the stroads. Because they are local roads, there may be more leeway for advanced design options and supplemental enhancements like water runoff control and more greening of corridors.
The Wisconsin Bike Fed is a member based non-profit that aims to cultivate, motivate and unite a strong community of residents as well as business and political leaders to move bicycling forward in Wisconsin – through educational programing and legislative action. To learn more about our work visit wisconsinbikefed.org and consider becoming a member today!
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.