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FOX 11 Investigates uncovers roadblock to Brown Co. traffic relief plan

Backed up traffic on Claude Allouez bridge crossing Fox River in De Pere during evening commute in November. (Mark Leland/WLUK)

BROWN COUNTY (WLUK) -- If you experience stop-and-go traffic heading to work or backups on your way home, you’re not the only one frustrated. Every community experiences traffic delays. Transportation planners design new roads to ease the congestion.

But FOX 11 Investigates found that in Brown County, those planning the roads are frustrated too.

Highway 172 in Brown County carries a heavy load of cars and trucks. During peak traffic hours, motorists are trying to cross the Fox River. A little over two miles to the south, the Claude Allouez Bridge in De Pere can be even worse.

The solution -- and most every community surrounding the area agrees -- is to build another bridge in the southern part of the county.

“We have part of our region in Brown County that is suffering due to not having that southern bridge,” said Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach.

Streckenbach is leading charge for a new bridge to be paid for by federal and state dollars. A bridge in that area meets all the criteria to get funding.

“Congestion, safety and economic development: We think we have all three of those,” said Streckenbach, explaining the three criteria.

If you think you’ve heard talk of this southern bridge idea before you’re right. The idea was first proposed back in 1968. It didn’t get real traction, though, until 1996.

“In 1996, our comprehensive plan’s stated goal was to build the bridge by 2020,” said Brown County principal planner Cole Runge.

As it turns out, 1996 was the same year Runge started working for Brown County’s planning department.

“It’s been on the front of my plate for quite some time,” Runge said of the southern bridge project.

Runge’s department reviewed several options for where the bridge should go. Ultimately, two choices were selected. One option, a mile and a half south of the Claude Allouez Bridge, would have the southern bridge crossing the Fox River at Scheuring Road on the west side, meeting up with Heritage Road on the east side.

The other option, favored by most area communities, would have the bridge cross another mile south between Red Maple on the west side and Rockland Road on the east side. That plan offers two alternatives for connecting with Interstate 41.

Once ground breaks, the entire project is expected to take ten years to complete. And the plan isn’t cheap.

“We assume at this point the project will cost probably at least $100 million,” said Runge.

Federal dollars could cover up to 80 percent of the project. So, what’s the hold up? Why is a project that has been on the drawing table for more than two decades not breaking ground?

“I think the problem has been we can’t get it on the state list of construction projects,” said Mike Walsh, who has been mayor of De Pere since 1996. And he’s still in office.

“I’m still working towards the bridge,” Walsh laughed.

Walsh says the southern bridge at Rockland and Red Maple would not only ease traffic congestion through De Pere, and address traffic safety concerns, it would also create another corridor of economic development.

“We think there’s a potential of about 10,000 jobs could be affected,” said Walsh. “It would be great for the entire region.”

Delays in building a southern bridge have been costly, according to State Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere.

“The city of De Pere has had to essentially hold off on proposed development, because they can’t say with certainty where the bridge is going to be,” said Jacque.

Jacque supports the current choices for a southern bridge. But all the entities pushing for construction say the region needs 100 percent support from local legislators. That they say would help to move up the list of road construction priorities in the state.

“All parts of the state are going to be arguing for those dollars,” said Streckenbach.

FOX 11 Investigates found that, after two decades of discussion there’s one local lawmaker who hasn’t signed on to the plan.

“Twenty years and I think it’ll be decades longer unless they take a little bit different approach,” said State Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere.

Lasee is the lone holdout. He agrees the area has needed another bridge for years now. But rather than endorsing what the planners came up with, he’s come up with another option. He says his plan would be about one-fifth of the cost, and be able to be built much quicker.

“I think if you consider an option just a few miles south and use existing interchange at Highway S, and a much shorter route to get across the river, and link up with Midway, you still have Highway 57 to get down to it,” explained Lasee. “I think that is much more doable. And I’ve heard estimates as little as $20 million.”

Streckenbach and the planners say a bridge that far south -- 5½ miles from the Claude Allouez Bridge -- was looked at years ago. Their determination: it wouldn’t help divert traffic from the problem areas.

“Building a bridge further south really doesn’t solve that problem,” said Streckenbach.

“We found if we went any farther south than Rockland-Red Maple the diversion was minimal,” added Runge.

Lasee, though, disagrees. He says a lot of the traffic they’re looking to alleviate is heading south to Appleton and beyond.

“You know what, maybe they’re right. But for $20 million, they could alleviate something in the next few years and they could still build the bridge they want if I’m proven incorrect,” added Lasee.

“The alternatives are on the table at the point, we won’t have any additional alternatives. This will be it,” stated Runge.

Brown County isn’t budging. Moving ahead to complete the environmental study of its proposals by the end of next year. The plan is to begin construction-related activities in 2019 of phase one -- hoping the plan and funding will be approved.

“As somebody who’s worked on this for quite some time, I believe it’s very important and I hope it goes forward,” said Runge.

“I think if they continue to pursue the option, I’ll be willing to bet that 10 or 20 years from now, we’ll still be talking about it,” said Lasee.

In the meantime, traffic continues to back up.

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