The High and Mighty

Trucks, Salt & Women by Scott Jacobs photo By Russ Tomlin It is best viewed at day’s end when the traffic divides overhead on ribbons of concrete slicing through the setting sun. The Milwaukee skyline, only the tops of the tallest buildings visible, casts dusky shadows on the freeway’s bridge piers and complex infrastructure. Cars glide seamlessly, passing on intersecting arcs, high above the ground. The Marquette Interchange, all 17 bridges and 28 ramps of it, radiates confidence as the sun slips below the horizon. For nearly a decade, the interchange’s reconstruction had been the elephant in the room of…

Trucks, Salt & Women

by Scott Jacobs
photo By Russ Tomlin

It is best viewed at day’s end when the traffic divides overhead on ribbons of concrete slicing through the setting sun. The Milwaukee skyline, only the tops of the tallest buildings visible, casts dusky shadows on the freeway’s bridge piers and complex infrastructure.

Cars glide seamlessly, passing on intersecting arcs, high above the ground. The Marquette Interchange, all 17 bridges and 28 ramps of it, radiates confidence as the sun slips below the horizon.

For nearly a decade, the interchange’s reconstruction had been the elephant in the room of state politics: a projected billion- dollar project that sparked jealously in rural legislators who preferred funding their own roads, and a lightning rod in Milwaukee for debates over light rail and new urbanism. Two governors and four secretaries of transportation had tried to get the project off the ground. When Frank Busalacchi was appointed the fifth (by new Gov. Jim Doyle in 2003), there was no wiggle room left. “Everyone knew we had to do something,” Busalacchi recalls. “The concrete was falling off the bridges.”

As difficult as it was to secure funding for the project, the actual construction presented far more insuperable challenges. All 45 of the bridges and ramps had to be torn down and replaced. Piece by piece, ramp by ramp, without disrupting the daily flow of traffic, 24 different contractors would have to work together in perfect precision to pour 400 million pounds of asphalt, install 21,000 tons of structural steel and apply 45,000 gallons of paint to the girders.

At one point, there were 48 cranes on site, 600 workers and dump trucks hauling away dirt and debris at the rate of 30 trucks an hour, one every two minutes. Every day was a new adventure.

The only comparable highway project in America was Boston’s Big Dig, a bloated $15 billion boondoggle that had stumbled to a conclusion only a year before Milwaukee’s project began in October 2004. But this one would have far different results. When the last ramp was opened in August 2008, it soon became clear something wonderful had occurred. The project had been completed ahead of time and under budget, at a total cost of less than $800 million. Miraculously, there had been no fatalities and no major accidents. The newly completed interchange won praise from local leaders and the national media.

“We thought the construction was going to be terrible, but it really wasn’t,” says Pete Beitzel, vice president of transportation for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. “There were alternative routes, an excellent Web page. It was probably the best project the Department of Transportation has done.”

“There aren’t too many cities that have been able to accomplish rebuilding a major piece of infrastructure like that,” says Rocky Marcoux, commissioner for the Milwaukee Department of City Development. “It puts us a leg ahead … and it’s pretty cool. If you look at it at night – the way the state has it lit – it’s beautiful.”

For Don Reinbold, the state Department of Transportation official who oversaw the project, the details blur. He has trouble remembering one ramp-opening from another, much less the last ribbon-cutting. Perhaps alone among all those who worked on the project, he knows the tortuous path it took to make it happen, the obstacles overcome, and how close Milwaukee came to a highway disaster.

Trucks, Salt & Women
The original Marquette Interchange was built to last 40 years, but the clock began ticking loudly almost as soon as it opened in 1968. Three villains conspired to corrode it: trucks, salt and women.

The interchange was designed to serve a capacity of 125,000 vehicles a day, but daily traffic quickly grew to 300,000 vehicles. Although Wisconsin’s population has only grown 47 percent since the late 1950s, when freeway discussions began, the number of cars has soared, rising 300 percent. A big reason for this is female drivers.

America’s original freeways were designed for a man’s world. Men used them to commute back and forth to work and take the family out on weekend excursions. Since 1950, however, the percentage of women in the workforce has jumped from 27 to 48 percent, and their driving habits greatly impact road use.

“The rise in the number of cars, driver’s licenses, miles traveled – it totally tracks with women going into the workforce,” says Sandra Rosenbloom, an urban planning professor at Arizona State University. Otherwise, she adds, “You wouldn’t see these astonishing increases in traffic congestion.”

The impact of female drivers helps explain an interesting contradiction. People drive further to work today, averaging 32 miles per day versus just under 22 miles back in 1960. Yet work trips now account for a far smallerpercentage of total driving: Today, freeway commuting accounts for just 16 percent of all driving, compared to 40 percent in 1950.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do, says the extra miles reflect the fact that men and women drive differently. Men tend to drive from Point A to Point B and back – to work and back, for instance. Women, however, are more likely to engage in “trip chaining” that combines several tasks – going to work, dropping the kids off at school, shopping for groceries – into one ride. Research shows women also make nearly twice as many trips than men do carting other passengers, so while a man might pass through the interchange twice to and from work, a woman might crisscross it three, four or five times. All that extra traffic adds more wear and tear on the pavement.

“It’s a fascinating example of how traffic patterns are not just anonymous flows in the models of engineers, but moving, breathing timelines of social change,” Vanderbilt writes.

Total miles traveled by trucks grew even faster than for cars, with a far greater toll. Fully 80 percent of all goods shipped in or out of Wisconsin travel by truck, and one of every three, according to a Wisconsin Department of Transportation study, passes through the interchange. Compared to cars, a truck’s extra weight adds greater stress if it bounces over cracks at the freeway’s expansion joints.

Highway engineers go to great lengths to design for extra loads. One thing they did not foresee, however, was that semitrailers would become longer and heavier. Only six years after the interchange opened, the weight limit for trucks was raised from 73,000 to 80,000 pounds; but even those limits were not enough for many carriers. In 1991, WisDot issued 42,000 special permits for overweight loads. By 2008, that had grown to 62,500.

As fuel costs rose, truck drivers increased tire pressure to improve gas mileage. But this exacerbated a phenomenon highway engineers call “impact loading.” At critical expansion joints, if the concrete is deteriorating or there is a wrinkle in the surface, the full weight of the truck lands on the crack, often causing more concrete pieces to break off.

This deterioration, in turn, was accelerated by road salt. In the 1950s, the impact of salt wasn’t considered by freeway planners because highway departments used sand to combat icy streets, and drivers coped with winter conditions by driving slower. The ease of freeway driving, however, created an expectation of speed, even in winter, and chemical salt compounds were developed to melt the ice.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, road salt was used even in the mildest flurries. The resulting runoff was such that one study in Madison found a sevenfold increase in the salt content of ponds near expressways in the 1990s. And that was just the salt that got away. Much of the salt seeped into the concrete, studies showed, loosening the laminations in the road surface, or found its way down the expansion joints into the bridge columns, threatening the entire structure.

The first sign of trouble on the Marquette Interchange came in 1991, when safety inspectors found unusual laminations in the surface pavement. More alarming: A broadening in the expansion joints had allowed saltwater to work its way down to the steel rebar in the bridge columns. The usual fix to extend the life of a freeway is to scrape off the top layer of concrete and repave. But the Marquette Interchange (like the Zoo Interchange) was a “box girder” design. The surface and the columns were all one piece. You couldn’t jackhammer one without affecting the other.

The clock said the Marquette Interchange still had 17 more good years, but Reinbold knew highway planning could easily be a 10-year process. The state commissioned studies for an east-west alternate freeway north of the city or a possible light rail system to relieve congestion. “But that kind of ended in a nondecision,” Reinbold recalls.

Meanwhile, annual inspections revealed growing problems. In 1999, engineers reported the bridge decks were sagging. Some retaining walls were falling in on the sides. Chunks of concrete were falling off columns. There were diagonal cracks across the tops of columns that showed stresses the bridges couldn’t handle and exposed rebar rusting in places where the concrete had fallen away. Reinbold and his safety engineers had an urgent meeting with then-Secretary of Transportation Chuck Thompson, his deputy and bureau chiefs. “We’re going to have to close this thing to trucks,” Reinbold warned. Not immediately, but soon. Very soon.

Reaching Consensus

Reinbold had worked nearly four decades at DOT and knew full well how complicated it would be to rebuild the Marquette Interchange. “I think I told them 14 times I didn’t want to do it,” he recalls.

For starters, the politics seemed intractable, involving many different players with differing priorities. During the 1990s, Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and Democrats John Norquist (Milwaukee’s mayor) and F. Thomas Ament (Milwaukee County executive) had many discussions on the issue. Eventually, they reached a consensus to support the reconstruction if Thompson agreed to dismantle the Park East freeway stub, modify the Sixth Street viaduct plans and back a Downtown trolley system.

The state hired two national highway design firms – Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff (HNTB) out of Kansas City, Mo., and CH2M HILL in Chantilly, Va. – to develop preliminary plans, and, depending on the project footprint, the early budgets shrank from $1.4 billion to $1.1 billion to $910 million, but there were still no funds to start construction. To buttress the sagging decks, the state did some $4 million worth of temporary patching, and Reinbold set out to build a constituency for his project.

“What I’ve learned is, you can’t get money until you get consensus,” he says, and he knew he’d never get it if he stuck to the tried-and-true procedure of holding environmental impact hearings. “People don’t attend public meetings. They’re too busy. Especially your decision-makers and public officials. They just don’t show up. So I decided we are going to meet anybody, anytime, anyplace.”

State transportation officials ultimately held more than 300 such meetings. There were one-on-one sessions with Milwaukee Common Council members about the impact on the city, county board meetings to talk about the courtroom annex, community meetings to discuss public art, neighborhood meetings to discuss bypass routes, business group meetings, ethnic group meetings, church group meetings.

Beitzel, the point man on this issue for MMAC, recalls a highway engineer taking him up onto the freeway to show him the deterioration. “You can drive on a gravel road; you can’t drive on a gravel bridge,” his guide told him, then showed him the worst of the problems. More than convinced, Beitzel wasn’t sure he would ever drive the bridge again.

The interchange plan evolved with each meeting. A bridge was added here, a ramp omitted there. But one compromise Reinbold wouldn’t make was on building an expressway that looked better than its predecessor. “A lot of people just don’t like expressways. Personally, I think they’re pretty ugly.” But this one would be in the Downtown area of the state’s largest city, and Reinbold felt strongly it had to look as good as possible.

He formed two aesthetics committees – one for the north leg and one for the south – and a third just to select the bridge colors. “I tried to keep the engineers off that one because we wanted to get good colors,” he wryly notes. Entire meetings were devoted to looking at color swatches. The committee drove around the city looking at other bridges and overpasses. Reinbold even went so far as to have the three final choices painted on a bridge wall in midwinter.

“It was a surrealistic experience,” says Bob Greenstreet, dean of the UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, who served on the committee. “We were standing out there in the cold in these orange jackets talking about color palettes while trucks rushed by at 70 miles per hour. The discussions were very short, as you can imagine.”

In the end, the committee chose “denim” and “wheat” – denim for the steel bridgework, wheat for the concrete – though many at nearby Marquette University naturally insist they are really blue and gold, the school colors.

In a state facing budget deficits, any amount of spending on the interchange was a challenge, much less a project with a price tag of $1 billion or so. But Busalacchi convinced the Federal Highway Administration to put up $400 million for half of the project while Doyle worked with the legislature to float revenue bonds for the rest, and by 2003, the money was there – if Reinbold and DOT could figure out how in the world they could rip out and replace the beating heart of Downtown Milwaukee.

Best-Laid Plans
The challenge before them seemed daunting, if not impossible: how to tear down the old highway, build a new one on top of it, and not disrupt the flow of traffic in the state’s most congested area for even a single day.

“We just stood back and watched in wonder, thinking this thing is going to jam up. You can’t close that down,” Greenstreet says. “We were expecting chaos, but everything was orderly and meticulously planned.”

Eighteen different firms worked on the design and 16 subcontractors participated in the construction. The lead contractor was a consortium of three Wisconsin highway builders – Lunda Construction in Black River Falls, Edward Kraemer & Sons in Plain and Zenith Tech in Waukesha – former competitors who banded together into Marquette Constructors to win the job.

Before the first shovel hit the ground, Reinbold insisted on developing a full computer model of each step in the four-year process. The construction would be like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, but even harder, because every piece had to be placed in the right order.

“If you put up one span too early, you couldn’t get in the other spans because you couldn’t get a crane in place,” Reinbold explains. “Plus, you had to tear down the old ramps to make room to build the new ones, but you also had to keep the traffic flowing while you did all this.”

To make it all happen, each piece had to be built to particular specifications, Reinbold adds: “We had to know in advance how to build it, so we would know if it couldb be built.”

To participate in the contract, builders needed to buy a proprietary software package and hire IT professionals familiar with its operation. Schedules, materials, costs – every detail of every footing, shaft, piling, ramp and pier – were accounted for in the software. Reinbold credits the computer-modeling for the ultimate delivery of the project on time and on budget. “We had much more detail than we ever used before, and without that kind of detail, we probably couldn’t have gotten it done.”

To further enhance communication, Reinbold wanted the key players all under one roof. He found space on the third floor of the old Amtrak train depot for all the subcontractors and design engineers. Later, he moved his own 35 engineers over to the second floor to be close to them.

One glitch could spell disaster: a bridge ramp, for instance, arcing gracefully through the air, only to land 6 inches away from the road it was connecting to. “Putting everybody in one building really made it work,” Busalacchi says. “If you had to talk to someone about a girder delivery or a concrete pour, all you had to do was get up from your seat and go across the aisle.”

In the middle of the busiest month of construction, Reinbold had to move the staff, all 105 of them, across the street to allow remodeling to start on the Amtrak station. After the remodeling, this new space would become a state-of-the-art facility monitoring all the traffic sensors and cameras in southeastern Wisconsin, feeding daily traffic reports to the police and media.

Although the old freeway system was built to last 40 years, the new one was designed to last 75. The new roadway would offer a better mix of aggregates in the high-strength concrete: “perpetual pavement” asphalt designed so repair crews can mill off and repave the top layer every 10 years; bridge decks that can be replaced when the first salt penetration is detected; and epoxy-coated rebar so even if road salt penetrates to the core, the bar steel won’t rust.

The rebuilt interchange would also reflect new thinking about the way we drive. The trademark of the first interstate highways was the “cloverleaf” interchange, an elegant set of looping entrance and exit ramps that snapped the knots out of urban congestion, eliminating the need for stoplights at intersections as the expressway traffic sped by on different levels.

As long as traffic remained inside the parameters of the predicted usage, this worked quite well. When traffic began to exceed capacity (and drivers routinely exceeded the speed limit), engineers began to notice a critical flaw in many ramp designs: Just as some drivers were slowing down to exit, other drivers were trying to accelerate behind them to enter the traffic flow.

This phenomenon, known as “weaving,” is responsible for 10 percent of all freeway accidents. The problem was particularly pronounced in the Marquette Interchange. With both right-side and left-side exits, drivers in many cases were weaving across three lanes of traffic to get to their destination. At the higher speed of traffic today (the new norm is 70 mph), and with the increased congestion, the highway engineer’s solution was twofold: First, put all entrance and exit ramps on the right; and second, raise and lengthen on-ramps to create better lines of visibility.

On-ramps that abruptly dumped cars going 30 mph into ongoing traffic averaging 60 mph or higher were reconfigured to let drivers accelerate to 40 mph over a longer distance (and concrete retaining walls that reduced visibility for cars entering the freeway were eliminated); off-ramps were made more gradual so exiting cars wouldn’t slow down the main traffic lanes.

Constructing the Monster
Brady Frederick was a fresh-faced 29-year-old from the Fox River Valley when he was hired by Lunda Construction to help build a freeway. He had just finished a stint as a civil engineer in the U.S. Navy and was about to get married. On the eve of his honeymoon, he was invited down to Milwaukee to look at “a small project” his Lunda employer said was under way on the west leg of the Marquette Interchange. “Honey,” an amazed Frederick told his fiancé when he got home, “I think we have to move to Milwaukee.”

For the next four years, Frederick would serve as Lunda’s on-site project director. The project sprawled out over 150 acres, with as many as a couple dozen teams working on different pieces of the puzzle. Ultimately, the bridge decks would cover 2 million square feet; the retaining walls would run for five miles; and the pile foundations, if placed end to end, would stretch out over 79 miles. But they went in one piece at a time.

The bridge spans were made of concrete and iron. The concrete came from Spancrete in Green Bay; the iron spans from PDM Bridge in Eau Claire. Each piece was custom-designed and had to be ordered a year in advance. Prior to shipping, the adjoining pieces were preassembled at the factory to ensure the pinholes holding them together (each 1 1/16 inches in diameter) were aligned. “You really couldn’t do much about that once you had them up in the air,” Frederick notes, “so each had to be fitted together on the ground to make sure it worked.”

The bridge spans ranged from 120 to 165 feet in length. There were more than 3,200 in all. The heaviest weighed 158,000 pounds. Getting the bridge parts to the construction site was as logistically complicated as installing them. Many spans were so long, they could travel only at night. Others had to wait overnight in waysides while the cranes were reset to accommodate them. Each truck was met at the Milwaukee County line by a sheriff’s department escort, which cleared city intersections so the truck could make the turns.

Because the trucks were up to 200 feet long, there was only one entrance and one exit drivers could use to access the site – and no room inside to turn around. Bridge parts not only had to arrive in sequence, they had to be placed on the trucks in the proper front-to-back order or the crane settings were useless. Of the 3,000 shipments, only seven arrived out of order.

Frederick remembers delivery day for the bridge beam of the interchange’s uppermost span. The ironworkers would be working 110 feet above ground level. They arrived and tied static lines to the girder. Then came the safety meeting. (Every lift began with one.) Ironworkers, crane operators and engineers went over the rigging, checked to make sure the cranes were in the right position and ironworkers knew where they should be. “Basically, we visualize how to control the lift. Who’s on the radio? Who’s talking?” Frederick says. Once everyone signed off, the lift began.

“This one took a little over an hour. It was difficult because we had to dunk it through a couple different girders. We had three levels already built, so we had to lift it through the center hole of them, kind of weave it around a couple different curves. We also had ironworkers following the girder up in man baskets, guiding it through.” The steel beam came within inches of the already-finished bridges; the slightest breeze could have sent it crashing into the concrete.

Once the girder was in place, the ironworkers set the alignment pins and began putting in the bolts. Normally, it takes them about a day to get the girder lifted and secured. They use 600 to 700 bolts to lock in every girder. That, too, has to be planned for, says Frederick: “You can’t lift if the wind is over 20 miles per hour, and you can’t stop in the middle, so you have to make sure you have a wide enough window to get it all pin-locked before the wind picks up.”

Dan Dassow, 33, was Frederick’s counterpart on the Zenith Tech team. For him, the Marquette Interchange was a family legacy. His 70-year-old father helped build the original bridges. Sometimes he came to watch Dan’s crew. “He couldn’t believe the equipment we had, or the speed of construction and the products,” Dassow says. “Or the safety measures.” The workers in his dad’s day worked 100 feet up with no harness. “But we’re tied off on anything six feet or more above ground. He loved seeing it, but I think he was happy going home knowing it wasn’t his responsibility.”

While one span was going up, another was coming down, a process that in many cases was even more perilous. “You never know how a bridge is going to react when you are trying to demolish it,” Frederick notes.

For each bridge segment coming down, crews would drive heavy equipment up onto a bridge segment to jackhammer out the concrete. “We’d just start whittling it down,” Dassow says. “We’d take out 10 feet on one side, then 10 feet on the other.” The last jackhammer run went down the bridge’s middle, leaving just enough room to drive the machines back off. It was a balancing act to slice away as much as possible, then get off before the whole thing came down.

Once a span was stripped to the bare minimum, cranes were brought in to detach and lower the skeleton. “When you hook on,” Frederick says, “you don’t know exactly how it’s going to break off, or what the exact load is. Up in the air, if you get a load shoved in your lap, you better be right because you can’t go back. If you have the wrong crane on there or your load calculations are off, the results can be catastrophic.”

Meanwhile, there was the constant problem of how to keep traffic flowing. Occasionally, at night or on holiday weekends, engineers would close portions of the roads for major changeovers, but the public was, for the most part, accommodating.

One reason, Reinbold believes, was a dedicated Marquette Interchange Web site with up-to-date information. Through a software program called “Map-It,” all the daily construction schedules were translated into lane closures and detours on the Web site. From their computer or mobile phone, drivers could enter their start point, destination and date of travel – even a month ahead of time – and get a detailed map of how to get through Downtown. During construction, the Web site drew 135 million hits.

Success At Last
In the wake of the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people, the problem of deteriorating bridges has gotten national attention. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, one of every four highway bridges in America are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Repairing or replacing them will cost $17 billion a year.

As transportation officials across America look to rebuild aging highway infrastructure, the Marquette Interchange has been singled out as a model of on-time, on-budget construction. In 2008, it was named one of the nation’s top-10 highway projects by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “If road building were an Olympic event, constructing the Marquette would be a gold-medal performance,” Western Builder magazine declared. “Like a top-notch gymnastics or diving routine, it held a high degree of difficulty and was close to perfect in execution.”

The project came in about $25 million under its budget of $810 million. The project handled countless dangerous situations without one fatality. The new configuration of exit and entrance ramps has been a huge success: In just the first year, the number of traffic-snarling accidents on the Marquette Interchange plummeted from three a day to just over three a week.

“Given the magnitude and complexity of the project, it was a brilliant accomplishment,” says Greenstreet.

For all of its functional efficiency, the interchange also scored with its design. The attention to aesthetics carried over into the curves and shapes of the bridges and columns. Many of the piers arc skyward like unfolding fans. Standard cyclone fencing along the sidewalks on the bridges was replaced by black patterned metalwork. Retaining walls have subtly etched patterns. On the north side, the Fond du Lac Bridge has embedded in its concrete a mural depicting the story of Joshua Glover, a runaway slave freed by abolitionists in Milwaukee before the Civil War. The Walnut Street Bridge has a series of West African-influenced Adinkra symbols reflecting that Walnut was once the main street of the black community. On the south side, retaining walls are etched with church steeples and spires reflecting the neighborhood’s religious history.

“The wonderful swoops these ramps make as you go over or under them are really quite beautiful in a sculptural way,” says Whitney Gould, the retired architectural critic for the MilwaukeeJournal Sentinel.

Milwaukee Magazine architecture critic Tom Bamberger called the new interchange “elegant and visually audacious” and particularly praised the contrasting blue and gold colors: “This accentuates the span’s thinness, it’s most obvious virtue, and draws beautiful and graceful lines across the sky.”

Today, Reinbold is glad he put off his retirement to oversee the project. “I never dreamed I would stay on to the end. After I got into it, though, I wanted to stay because it was a neat project. Every day was a rush. Some days it was a good rush. Some days a tough one. But it was stimulating.” And the result, he adds, is something to salute.

And salute it they did. Last summer, the project’s leaders, including Reinbold, Dassow and Frederick, joined with some 200 of their workers for a ceremony at the base of a Marquette dormitory at 10th and Wisconsin. On a retaining wall, they unveiled a memorial with the names of all 3,551 individuals who worked on the project. A modest tribute to a massive achievement.

“It was kind of neat,” Frederick says. “It made you feel like if you do a good job, somebody will notice.”

Scott Jacobs is a freelance writer. Write to him at