Update on Milwaukee County Bicycle Projects

I attended the Milwaukee County Trails Council last Thursday and once again have a lot to report. The meeting is attended by Melissa Cook, the WDNR Regional trail manager, as well as SEWRPC, the WisDOT regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator and even representatives from the Metro Mountain Bikers and representatives from the Rolling Dice Riders, the Milwaukee Count member of the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs. Normally and Kristin Bennet, the City of Milwaukee Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator also attends, but she was at the Pro Walk, Pro Bike. Pro Place conference in Pittsburgh.

Oak Leaf Trail Extension North: As I reported in my last update from the previous Trails Council Meeting, phases 1-3 of this multi-year project are complete. Phase 4, AKA the UP Rail Corridor, is the final 3.1 mile link between where the trail currently ends in Estabrook park and dumps you out onto Wilson, just south of Hampton Avenue and the newest segment of trail that begins at Sydney Place. The segment includes four bridges.

Click the image for a larger view.

The staff from Milwaukee County Parks told us that their offers to purchase the right of way from the railroad went in last month. WisDOT has approved the Environmental Assessment and the Design Study Report, both formal parts  of any state funded project. A revised aquisition plat was approved and filed with the County Clerk. DAAR Engineering, the WisDOT master consultantin engineering firm hired to review every project in the SE Wisconsin region, is negotiating a three-party contract with Graef to be the bridge consultant.

Bottom line is they plan to advertise the project for bids by October 27th with construction in 2015. That assumes the bids come in OK, which is not a given since bids have been coming in high lately.

To anyone who has been riding the single track desire line trail for the last umpteen years, despite the trees growing up between the rails, that track was not officially abandoned until a few yeast ago, which explains why this has taken so long. The good news is there is finally light at the end of the tunnel!

Washed out Oak Leaf: The County was awarded FEMA money to repair some sections of trail washed out in the floods a couple years ago. Construction is done in the sections in Estabrook, Riverside, Bradford and Juneau Parks. Construction will start soon in Grant, Pleasant Valley, and Big Bay Parks.

Flooding on the Oak Leaf: The County has dug a trench to try to relieve some of the flooding on the Oak Leaf Trail through the Cambridge Woods neighborhood on Milwaukee’s East Side. It was noted that some of the desire line trails down the hill from Cambridge made by neighbors to access the trail are adding to the flooding problem by letting runoff from the road down onto the trail. As the Bike Fed noted in the City of Milwaukee Off-Street Bikeway Study that we did many years ago, that neighborhood definitely more access to the trail, but DIY steps might not be the best way to do that.

We also discussed the river flooding and leaving mud on the trail in the underpass at Layton Avenue. Members noted that because of the very high water table there, the river floods pretty much every time it rains and leave slippery mud on the trail that then dries into rutted concrete-like dirt. We discussed options and suggested a permanent sign warning trail users of the potential hazard and the need for increased maintenance. There is a marked at-grade crossing that people can use as an alternative.

Click on the photo to visit a Google Map of the location. As you can see, there is a marked at-grade crossing on Layton that people can use as an alternative.

Menomonee River Parkway Menomonee River Parkway Reconstruction: The Wisconsin Bike Fed is part of the consulting team on this project. Our role is small, but important as we review bicycle and pedestrian accommodations.  Anyone who has ridden on the Menomonee River Parkway knows it is in dire need of reconstruction. This project will include a separated multi-use path, better on-street accommodations for bicycles as well as rain gardens and bioswales to collect stormwater runoff and cleanse it of silt and pollution. There also will be new LED lighting, improved pedestrian crossings and some minor traffic calming to keep motor vehicle speeds down and help reduce cut-through traffic. The overall goal of the project is to restore a parkway feel to the road, oh, and to fix the pot holes! The project has a website with more information here.

The project is being done in two phases, with phase one from Capitol to Burleigh and phase two from Burleigh to Church Street. The county has budgeted about $3.1 million for the first phase, which will cover about two miles of the parkway from Capitol Drive to Burleigh Street. A second phase would be funded in the 2015 budget, includes another 2.5 miles of parkway from Burleigh Street to Church Street in the Village, likely to cost about $3.8 million.

Phase one of the project was advertised and bids were opened August 13th. They are waiting for a permit to be approved, but underground work will start this year and perhaps some road construction. The rest of the project will be done in 2015, and it includes a new section of trail along with improved bicycle/pedestrian and storm water facilities on the parkway itself.

Beerline Trail Extension: The City has hired a consultant to begin acquisition of the abandoned railroad right of way needed to extend the Beerline Trail north from Keefe Avenue to Capitol Drive. The project will also include elements from The Artery.

Click to open a Google Map of the final phase of the Bay View to Downtown Connector WisDOT Preferred Alternative.

Bay View to Downtown Connector: How old do you have to be to remember this project began as a bike path over the Hoan Bridge? OK, I won’t go there, but I am happy to inform readers that construction on the final segment of the WisDOT Preferred Alternative for the Bay View to Downtown Connector is nearly complete. This segment begins where the Kinnickinnic River Trail ends at East Washington Street and is planned to continue north along S. Water Street to Erie. The project includes a combination new pavement, removal of some abandoned railroad tracks, improved track crossings for those the active rail lines that remain with a side path to get people over the oblique crossings at a safe angle, new bike lanes, and anti-slip places on the Pittsburgh/Young Street bascule bridge over the river.

I rode down to check it out over the weekend and there were already people taking advantage of the new facilities. While it isn’t the Hoan, it does make for a better route from Bay View to Downtown. Check out my photos of the project below.

The side path along the east side of S Water begins just north of Washington Street. here you can see how the City designed the crossing of the oblique railroad track to be at a safer angle. I remember red lining these plans when I still worked for the City!

New pavement and bike lanes on S Water Street.

These riders are taking advantage of the new anti-slip plates on the metal grate lift bridge over the river, and ignoring the ironic view of the Hoan under construction in the background.

The City of Milwaukee also added green bike lanes in the conflict points when they resurfaced Humboldt Avenue. Humboldt is a very important bicycle route in Milwaukee and this project was greeted with celebration by the neighbors in Riverwest. They even organized a quick “green party,” in which people dressed in green pedaled over to promote the new green lanes.

Green pavement markings in bike lanes can be used to highlight conflict points in mixing zones where motor vehicle and bicycle traffic cross.

Counting Bicycles: Milwaukee County was able to purchase a trail counter with funds raised by the Oak Leaf Trail Discovery Tour Passport Program. The County hopes to purchase 16 more counters next year. The Counter is already in place and sending in great data. Motor Vehicle counts are part of every state and municipal annual traffic program. Doing counts of people using trails should really be done everywhere too. Madison has been counting trail users for years and that data is very useful to see growth and know when to do maintenance on trails to impact the least amount of users.

The new counter the County purchased sends the data via cellular connection to a website where it can be downloaded.

59,000 people used the trail during the period it was out. We will be able to compare that number in future years to see if use is growing. it will be very interesting to see if the numbers take a big jump after the final connection to the Interurban is completed in 2016.

The Bike Fed is using volunteers to do manual counts in the Riverwest and Harambe Neighborhoods as part of the benchmarking part of our Smart Trips Project and we might try to expand those counts locations around the City next year.

Milwaukee Bike Maps: When I last spoke with City of Milwaukee Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Kristin Bennett, she told me she had someone working on updating the GIS for a new map and was 90% sure she would have funding to reprint the map in 2015.

State Bike Map: The state is working on an update to the map, they have asked if the Bike Fed would distribute the map again and pay for printing this time. It seems as if the company that previously printed and sold the map to us is no longer interested in printing maps. While digital maps are probably making it harder for for-profit companies to print maps, as a non-profit, we might be able to make that work, so we have agreed in principle, but no final details of that arrangement have been worked out. Unlike the Milwaukee County Map, there remain many thousands of state bike maps available though, so it is not as urgent.

Mountain Biking: The Metro Mountain Bikers are interested in revisiting the Memorandum of Understanding with Milwaukee County that defines their roll building and maintaining mountain bike trails in the County. We are talking about the possibility of legitimizing the social trails that connect the official trails at Hoyt Park with the other set of official trails at Harley Woods and Oak Hill.

Special Events Permits now required to hold events on trails and in parks: This topic might need a blog post of its own. Milwaukee County Parks and the WDNR are now requiring ANY publicized event (runs, rides, yoga classes, etc.) to be permitted. This means any time someone creates a Facebook Event for a bike ride that uses the Oak Leaf Trail or Hank Aaron State Trail must fill  out a permit, even if there is no fee for the ride (or run, yoga class, etc.).

Underwear Ride, Monthly Group Ride, team training ride, class field trip on bicycles, whatever, if you create and publicize an event and invite people to it using social media or regular media, you must get a permit. If no fee is being charged for the event, it is likely there will be no fee required for the permit. The state has an insurance requirement though, which will be very problematic for most free events.

Before you get up in arms (like I did when I first heard this), I would EVERYONE to fill out the permit applications for EVERY ride you publicize. Not for every ride you take on your own, but any event you create, or for every regular standing event. By doing so, this will do several things:

It will help the County get a better idea of just how many events are in the parks and how many people are really using the parks. That sort of information could be used to request additional funding and resources.

It will help ensure your event does not conflict with other events you might not know about.

It will also test this policy. Nobody has yet had a problem with it, so why complain yet? Let’s try it out, fill out the permit applications (they are not long) and see how it goes? If the state and county are able to quickly turn around and approve permits and this results in better data about users, it will be a win. If the process holds up ride planning, overwhelms staff resources, or free social rides are refused because of the insurance requirement, the Bike Fed can work with the agencies to get changes made in this policy.

Here is a link to the County permit application

Here is a link to the WDNR permit application.


About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

13 thoughts on “Update on Milwaukee County Bicycle Projects

  1. Let’s face it. This is ridiculous to require a permit to ride on the Oak Leaf and Hank Trails. Unless it is a huge, organized ride, (like Trek 100 style), no one is going to request a permit and no one should enforce this.

    • James, I thought this permit issue would have some push back. I have had several meetings with the WDNR and County about it already. They remain steadfast, and the WDNR sounds like it is getting tougher about this, not more lenient. I think this is worthy of a separate blog post and discussion, as well as future meetings with the County and WNDR to make clarifications. That is why you join the Bike Fed, so someone reports this stuff and you have a representative working on issues like these.

  2. Wonderful update about trail improvements. I can understand permits for large groups — walkers and strollers can quickly clog up a trail. A simple online process would be no big deal and would establish rules for usage. It would be nice, too, if the state or county would post that information. My concern is with state insurance requirements for individuals who use Facebook to organize a small ride that uses the Hank Aaron or Lakeshore State Park — i.e. Bunkie & The Reindeers’ Oak Leaf Discovery Tour in a Day.

    • Exactly Bunkie, it would be my advice that they only require permit applications for groups over a certain size, say 50 people, or those that charge a fee. That is not the rule now though. Now, everyone is required to fill out a permit application.

  3. Does anyone have any idea what it would cost to buy $1,000,00.00 of liability insurance for a day? It really does seem like a totally unwarranted hassle for my group. The Greater Milwauke Recumbent Bike Club hosts a ride a month from April to October some of which are on state and county trails. We a group of max 20 individuals. Are they really going to require that kind of insurance from a group like this? What about Cream City and Bay View bike clubs? Depending on cost, it could be prohibitively expensive and a terrific loss to the biking community!

    • Sure Peter, it costs $2.20 per unique rider per event. McKay Insurance is where most people go. Some clubs have insurance through the League, and that might cover you, but you would need to get the policies to list the County and the WDNR and its employees for a specific event.

      Will they require that insurance for the groups you mention? I asked the same questions and their response was each group needs to fill out the application and they will judge the applications on an individual basis.

  4. I’m so glad the Layton Ave. underpass was discussed. Because it’s so dark under there, it can be quite difficult to see the state of the trail. After flying over my handlebars once when the consistency of the mud was just right, I’ve learned to take the street crossing!

    • Ty,

      Yep, we discussed the problem of going from bright sunlight to darkness and mud/ruts too. I have ridden through the section when it is muddy, and it is very slippery, when the mud hardens, it can be just as bad. Because of the frequency with which the underpass floods, permanent closure was discussed, but the council recommended a permanent warning sign and more regular maintenance instead. the County agreed, but those sorts of things are a challenge when budgets are being cut every year.

  5. First off I love all the improvements going on. The plating on the grated bridges is well great! And the ramps for the 6th Street bridge are open now too.

    I see this permit thing being very problematic. How are they going to enforce it? Local police force don’t hardly care if you go through stop signs or red lights why would they stop people from using the trails? I do not know that the DNR or Park system has the staff to patrol, how would this be enforced? How can they possibly monitor social media to see what is being planned, to know if it is just a group of freinds via phones. If a group branches off from the Santa Rampage, are those organizers held responsible? Finally, this is like requiring car clubs and motorcycle groups to file permits for road use when they have a group event. Good luck to the park systems enforcing this.

    • Hey Bob,

      Thanks, and yes, I requested the ramps on the 6th Street Bridge be opened for the Polish Moon Ride and both the City and the WDNR were super helpful making that happen and keeping them open!

      As for the permit rule and even parks closed after 10pm rule, both have been enforced in the parks and on the trails, but I don’t believe anyone was ever ticketed by the Sheriff (but that is not out of the realm of possibilities). I don’t want to make the Parks out to be bad guys here though. Remember all the wonderful things they do with ever shrinking budgets. I think we need to work with them to try to strike a balance between the need to manage groups using the parks for special events and discouraging people from using the parks or even open civil disobedience. The people who work at the Parks Dept. are constantly under stress to provide great parks and services for more and more users, with fewer and fewer resources. We have to work with them, be advocates for more funding, but also explain when policies don’t work well for the users.

  6. Thanks Dave for the update, some good news in the above.

    Regarding the insurance issue, my group has previously used Iowa-based McKay Insurance, and found them to be relatively easy to work with. Another good option would be to contact Wisconsin-based Scott Chapin with RJF Agencies. Scott’s agency works with a lot of cycling groups, and he’s done a lot of work personally to promote the building of mountain bike trails in Wisconsin, and also promoting the economic value of recreational trails.

    As to flooding, mud and broken pavement on the Oak Leaf Trail in the Cambridge Woods neighborhood on Milwaukee’s East Side (North of North Avenue, and South of Belleview Place) the County’s efforts there have been awful and royally ineffective. No street in Milwaukee would be allowed to exist in the flooded, rutted, mud-covered state that the OLT there has existed for the last five years. The fault is not created by the neighbors, but by the failure of the County to install some basic drainage on a major urban cycling artery. Until that is done, no amount of seasonal patching, or scrapping a little ditch, is going to fix the problem. Every winter that stretch will again become flooded and ice covered for months on end, and the freeze and thaw cycle will destroy the pavement again. “Fixes” over the last 5 years have been anything but. The Roman’s figured out how to build a pathway that doesn’t flood about 2000 years ago, this is not rocket science. Proper drainage has to be install, the elevation of the trail has to be slightly increased there, and the County has to replace about 100 yards of completely worn out, broken and dangerous trail. That section is an utter embarrassment (especially in Winter) on what otherwise is a world-class bike commuting trail. When all the construction was going on recently adjacent to the trail just south of that area (new UWM construction, new very-elaborate access ramp from the OLT to North Avenue, new condo construction, etc.), the County utterly missed its chance to at the same time create a sustainable, long-term solution to that short, by highly annoying area of the OLT. The money used on the access ramp especially bugs me (it looks like it was built to accommodate car traffic), when if that had been scaled back to a scale fit for cyclist and pedestrians only, the money saved could have been used to fix the OLT in that area itself, a portion of the trail that has exponentially greater amount of cycling traffic on it, compared to the access ramp. Cyclists and runners have to bring this issue up every time they talk with a County official, or nothing is ever going to change there.

    • Sandie,

      I agree the drainage issue is not entirely caused by runoff from the desire line trails, but it does add to the problem. That area of trail was wet before the the Kenilworth building ramp or the North Ave ramp were installed. When the first ramp was being installed, I suggested running a lateral to the Kenilworth parking garage elevator lift station, but that did not happen. As to the ramp widths, depending on the funding source, there may have been federal requirements to build the ramp wide enough to accommodate emergency vehicles. That is often the case and why bridges and ramps need to be overbuilt.

      I have not seen the trench yet, but I certainly hope it will help. I believe a French Drain might help, but I don’t think it would cure the problem since there is no place for the water to go unless you trench a looong way. The other reason it might not work is the water sources are not all from the ramp. I have ridden through there when it is zero degrees out and there is still standing water. I think there is a leak somewhere in a main or sewer line, or even a seep. The City has looked for a leak in the area, but has not found one.

      Regarding the Romans, we don’t have to go back that far, because drainage is always a big key to designing rail lanes, and as a former rail line, that trail used to have better drainage.

      As with any of these issues facing Milwaukee County Parks, I think it is helpful to remember that the Parks budget and staff have been cut year after year. The permit issue aside, the people I know at the Parks do as much as they can with extremely limited resources. I think we are better off directing our suggestions to the County Executive and County Board, who have some ability to increase revenue.

      That said, they only have limited powers too since shared revenue has been cut and property tax increases are limited by the state legislature. Even when Milwaukee County Residents voted to tax themselves with a 1% sales tax to pay for parks and transit, but the will of the people held no sway with those in power at the time.

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