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Pedestrian bridge might replace tunnel at Nicolet High

Safety, flooding at I-43 juncture have state considering change

Aug. 12, 2012

A pedestrian bridge might be built over a North Shore stretch of I-43 to replace a tunnel that has drawn concerns about flooding and safety at Nicolet High School, state transportation planners say.

Nicolet officials have been pushing for the state Department of Transportation to study whether such a bridge could replace the tunnel that runs beneath the freeway, linking the high school's main campus to its satellite athletic fields, said Brian Reiels, Nicolet director of facilities services.

State planners are gathering comments from area residents about that idea as they study how to rebuild I-43 from W. Silver Spring Drive in Glendale to state Highway 60 in Grafton, a job that could last from 2019 through 2021, said Michael Pyritz, spokesman for the Transportation Department's southeastern regional office in Waukesha.

The tunnel, south of W. Green Tree Road in Glendale, is used both for access to the athletic fields east of the freeway and for students walking to and from school, Reiels said. It is owned by the state but maintained by the school district, he said.

"One reason we want to replace the tunnel is that it became a waterway during our flood two years ago," Reiels said.

The summer 2010 flood laid waste to 80% of Nicolet's building, racking up some $9 million in damage and delaying the start of fall classes by two weeks. As powerful thunderstorms drenched the area with near-record torrents of rain, "a huge water flow . . . probably in excess of 4 or 5 feet" deep rushed through the tunnel, swamping N. Jean Nicolet Road and charging across the parking lot to burst through the school's doors, Reiels said.

But long before that flood, Nicolet wanted to get rid of the tunnel for safety and security reasons, Reiels said. School officials raised the idea with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission a decade ago, when the planning body was designing its plan for rebuilding all of the area's aging freeways, he said.

"Frankly, there's limited visibility" in the tunnel and "it's in a state of less-than-ideal repair," leading school officials to believe students would be safer on a bridge overhead, Reiels said.

The pedestrian bridge isn't the biggest change being considered in the I-43 reconstruction study. Regional planners recommended widening the freeway from four to six lanes from W. Bender Road to W. Brown Deer Road and adding on- and off-ramps at W. Highland Road in Mequon.

State transportation officials sought comments from residents about all of those ideas at public information meetings last week at Nicolet and at Mequon City Hall. Engineers will assess the level of public interest in those changes and develop options to present at the next set of public information meetings in January, Pyritz said.

It's possible the state could study widening to six lanes north of Brown Deer Road as well, but unlikely that an eight-lane configuration would be considered, project supervisor Manojoy Nag said. The freeway now narrows from six lanes to four lanes north of Bender Road.

State officials hope to settle on a plan by late 2013; win federal approval by late 2014; proceed through preliminary engineering, final design and real estate acquisition over the next four years; and start work by 2019, with completion targeted for 2021.

A similar schedule is envisioned for rebuilding I-94, from 25th St. to 70th St., including the Stadium Interchange. Both projects would start after completion of the $1.7 billion reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange, from 2015 through 2018; the $275 million to $350 million repaving of I-794, including replacement of the Hoan Bridge deck, from 2013 through 2016; and the $40 million overhaul of bridges on I-43/I-94 south of downtown in 2013 and 2014.

All five of those projects, however, would overlap with the $1.9 billion reconstruction of I-94 from Milwaukee's south side to the Illinois line, which started in 2009 and is expected to last until 2021.

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