Fatal flaw in the Marquette Interchange?


by Paul Piaskoski

MILWAUKEE—It has been four years now since officials cut the ribbon on the $800 million Marquette Interchange.

The project was finished early and under budget and it has since won national awards for its design.

But there have also been some bumps in the road.

There was a crumbling support on one of the ramps a couple of years ago, and more recently, problems with the merge from 794.

Now Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is warning motorists about another potential trouble spot which is a very busy stretch in the Marquette Interchange that he believes is a disaster waiting to happen.

"That’s a tough curve to negotiate at 40 or 45 miles per hour on the best of days,” said Sheriff Clarke.

The Sheriff is talking about the ramp between eastbound 94 and northbound 43.

He was the first to raise the red flag when accidents began occurring there at an alarming rate.

91 separate crashes and 27 people injured over a two year period.

That’s 15 times the accident rate on all of the other ramps in the interchange; most of the accidents took place when the pavement was wet.

“People couldn’t negotiate the turn. The angle of that ramp is very unusual. It’s like a dog leg on a golf course… In my novice opinion the design is flawed,” Sheriff Clarke said.

“When you’re out there designing you don’t have a blank piece of paper,” said DOT regional director Dewayne Johnson.

Johnson said that safety is always the agency’s top priority, but when it came to designing and building this particular ramp he admits there were several competing priorities.

"The MacArthur Square, the Kilbourn tunnel, those were previous investments...Do we want to maintain those or do something different? Ultimately, the community input was such that we made the decision to keep those in place," Johnson said.

Now no one is suggesting that the DOT deliberately laid down a dangerous ramp, or willfully put motorists at risk to save a few bucks, but as we look ahead to other major projects, like the Zoo Interchange, Johnson's explanation does beg the question were there too many cooks in the kitchen?

And did engineers perhaps nibble away at the margins of acceptable design in the name of cost and convenience?"

"You're asking would we do the wrong thing because the public weighs in a particular way, you know, ultimately we are paid to make tough hard decisions and represent the taxpayer out there, and we're going to put something in that we stand behind, that fits the criteria, and which is safe," Johnson said.

As for all of the accidents, Johnson insists the blame lies not with the ramp’s design, but with drivers.

"Unfortunately, drivers have chosen to drive it faster than it's signed and marked for," Johnson said.

"That's what engineers have to deal with when they're designing these things, not what do we want people to do, but what does the history actually show they're going to do, and let's build in some margin for error," Sheriff Clarke said.

Paul question: "It seems to me on the face that when you have an inordinate number of crashes on one ramp, relative to virtually the entire freeway system, that there would be more than just driver behavior at work there. Are you willing to grant me that, asks CBS 58 anchor Paul Piaskoski?

"Look urban interchanges present more decision points for drivers, and so as a result, you're going to have more crashes overall," said Johnson.

But some of Johnson’s own colleagues seem to contradict him on this point.

In a series of internal emails obtained by CBS 58, engineers and traffic safety experts within the agency sound increasingly frantic about what they’re seeing in the Marquette Interchange.

In May of last year, DOT engineer John Corbin wrote, “This was the third incident on that ramp in one day. A week ago there were seven incidents in one day.”

In June safety engineer Bill Bremer called the crash comparison with other ramps remarkable.

The emails also suggest redesigning as a single lane ramp as a possible long term solution.

"So if you had it to do over again, would you build that ramp a little differently, asks Piaskoski?

"We would build it the same. Maybe the one change would be to add the friction course right from the beginning," said Johnson.

The friction course that Johnson is talking about is an epoxy material that was applied to the surface of the ramp last fall designed to give cars better traction as they round that curve.

It may prove to be the DOT’s saving grace. Accidents have dropped off sharply ever since.

But the Sheriff’s concerns over the ramp’s near blind curve run much deeper.

"I mean when you first hit it, you really can't see what's at the end of it, so if there's a crash in the roadway there, and you're coming around at 40 miles per hour, you're going to have a problem," said Sheriff Clarke.

Despite the Sheriff’s concerns the DOT said that redesigning the ramp is not an option they’re willing to consider.

As for the epoxy treatment that seems to have solved the wet weather issue.

We’re told that it costs about $90,000 per treatment and it will have to be applied every 5 to 10 years to remain effective.


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