Wisconsin Highways

Hoan Bridge: 2000

The Daniel Webster Hoan Memorial Bridge, part of the I-794 Lake Freeway in downtown Milwaukee, was constructed from 1970 through 1972 (though it opened to traffic in 1977) and spans the entryway to Milwaukee's inner harbor and the mouth of the Menomonee and Kinnnickinnic Rivers. It is a landmark structure seen from many southside streets and freeways and in 1975 won awards from the American Institute of Steel Construction (the "Long Span Bridge Award") and from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

However, for several years the Hoan Bridge was, quite literally, the "Bridge to Nowhere." Construction on the structure was completed in 1972, but local backlash against the Milwaukee County freeway system caused a delay in the completion of the connecting roadways. Thus, the Hoan sat there, unconnected from the rest of the highway system until 1977 when compromise was reached and it was connected at both ends and traffic began flowing across. I-794, which uses the Hoan Bridge, simply ended at Carferry Dr, though, for more than two decades while the future of the long-proposed Lake Freeway extension was mulled over. Finally in September 1998 the STH-794/Lake Parkway opened from the southern end of the Hoan Bridge approach southerly to Layton Ave, which meant the former "Bridge to Nowhere" was now, at least, a "Bridge to Somewhere."

Hoan Bridge, side view

That is, until the very cold, early morning of December 13, 2000 when a 217-foot section of the northbound span began to buckle and crack as motorists were driving over the structure. One of those motorists dialed 9-1-1 to report the failure and a Milwaukee County sheriff deputy immediately responded to the Bridge and confirmed that, indeed, two of the bridge's three support beams had failed and the deck was sagging approximately four feet. The Hoan was immediately closed in both directions with no injury or loss of life while engineers then rushed to the scene to examine the situation and begin mulling over potential solutions. The affected span did not collapse, though, as the third and final support beam kept it from failing, although one source notes "the final girder sustained considerable stress damage until the bridge span was felled two weeks later."

While traffic into and through downtown Milwaukee snarled with the loss of the major north-south corridor served by the Hoan Bridge, engineers and public officials debated on how and when to fix the bridge. After weighing the options, it was decided to perform a controlled demolition using explosives on the affected span, removing it completely from the structure. The area directly below the failed span, which involved part of the Milwaukee Municipal Sewer District sewage treatment plan, was prepared during the two weeks following the failure. Then, on December 28, 2000, with scores of Milwaukeeans in attendance and dozens of press and television cameras trained on the structure, the buckled portion of the bridge was removed without incident.

With the failed section removed and the remainder of the bridge completely inspected for similar problems, the southbound lanes were reopened on February 17, 2001 with one lane of traffic in each direction. This helped alleviate the traffic nightmare, somewhat, while repairs to the northbound side of the bridge were underway. During the summer, rapid progress is made on the bridge and on October 11, 2001, Governor Scott McCallum was the first to drive over the newly-repaired northbound lanes at 10:00 am, officially re-opening the bridge to traffic, although only two lanes in each direction were initially available. All six lanes were cleared and made available on November 1, 2001, officially completing the repair work in less than eleven months.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reported the cause for the failure in December 2001:

According to a detailed forensic analysis by the FHWA lab, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT), Lehigh and Northwestern Universities, and a private consulting engineering firm, the bridge failure began in a joint on the center girder of the northbound section. The stresses of extreme cold and traffic contributed to that failure. Research results from the failed Hoan Bridge span are now being communicated by FHWA to state DOTs so they can check similar bridges to prevent failures. A two-day workshop that shared this information was held in September 2001 with more than 100 transportation officials from all over the United States. Through its partnership with FHWA, WisDOT reconstructed the missing span and reopened the bridge to traffic in October 2001.

On April 23, 2002, Senator Herb Kohl announced the securing of an additional $4.9 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation to help cover the repairs costs which brought the total federal reimbursement for the bridge to over $12.4 million. Kohl, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, had identified this project as a priority for funding.

Once again, the Hoan Bridge fills the need for a major north-south connector between downtown Milwaukee and the neighborhoods on the near south side of the city. The bridge was named for Daniel Webster Hoan (1881-1961), the second socialist mayor of the city who was also Milwaukee's longest-serving mayor and is considered to be the longest continuous socialist administration in U.S. history.

Additional Information

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