Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Potholes degrade the Parkway experience

Broken pavement is a symptom of economic malaise and misplaced priorities. 

Over a century ago, Frederick Law Olmsted conceived of the parkway, intended to be a place in the city where its citizens could go for a ride or a walk and enjoy natural scenery. Charles Whitnall, founding father of the Milwaukee County parks, took Olmsted’s brilliant idea even further by designing parkways that parallel rivers and streams.

However, it’s hard to achieve the level of serenity envisioned by either man when a ride on the parkway requires constant vigilance in order to prevent a serious mishap due to potholes and crumbling pavement. This was brought forcefully home to me by contrast the other day.

I was out walking in the Milwaukee County Grounds the other day. I took the gravel path east around the detention basin from Hoyt Pool. When I reached what has been a wide gravel access road I was surprised to find a pristine expanse of newly laid asphalt stretching as far as I could see in both directions.

My first reaction was, who needs asphalt here where gravel would suffice? I am often dismayed when parkland is covered with concrete or asphalt. When I’d had a moment to reflect on the smooth surface further, though, I got angry instead.

Why has this dead end road that bears so little traffic been made so smooth while the heavily used Menomonee River Parkway continues to crumble? If you’ve driven on the parkway lately you know how bad it is. Potholes that can wreak havoc with a suspension system or cause a blowout seem to appear overnight.

In warm weather, overworked County crews eventually come by and throw a patch of asphalt in the worst of the holes. In winter the patches don’t stand a chance against the snowplows. Every year, in April the parkways look like they’ve been bombed. I’ve seen whole caravans of cars swerve into the opposite lane to avoid a wide swath of potholes.

If, like me, you enjoy riding a bicycle along the parkway, it’s even worse. There are some stretches where the severity of the conditions goes beyond the potential to cause expensive damage. It is downright dangerous to ride a bike on these roads.

Between Swan Boulevard and Congress Street, the Oak Leaf Trail coincides with the Menomonee River Parkway. The off-road section of the Oak Leaf Trail north of Congress is one of the loveliest places to ride a bike and I used to go there regularly. I don’t go as often now because I have to ride on the parkway to get there. It worsens year by year.

I made a call to the County Parks Department to ask about the situation. The County has a budget for road repairs and when a particular road reaches the top of the priority list it gets repaired. For now, believe it or not, there are worse roads on the list than this stretch of the Menomonee River Parkway. Compounding the problem for our particular stretch of parkway, apparently, are some turf battles between Milwaukee County and the City of Wauwatosa over who is responsible for repairs. 

The paving of the road into the County Grounds, although on County land, was part of MMSD’s detention basin construction project and as such was paid for out of that budget – a different pot of taxpayer money.

Personally, I don’t blame the County workers. It’s the budget. Who isn’t aware that the County budget is out of whack or that the parks are underfunded? The problems predate any current incumbent and have continued to escalate through administrations of different political persuasions.

It’s easy to pick on potholes. No one likes them. I don’t understand why there hasn’t been a louder public outcry over this before now. But frankly, we are all responsible. In the current anti-tax environment we are going to have to live with potholes a long while. What we need is the political spine to increase revenues. Otherwise our broken roads will never be repaired.

While we’re at it, let’s get our priorities straight. Take a look at the accompanying photos and tell me what’s wrong with the picture. Why are our taxes going to pave roads we don’t use instead of the ones we do? If this kind of thinking prevails we really will find ourselves at a dead end. 

The above first appeared in the Wauwatosa Patch on my WildWauwatosa column. I’ve since learned from my county supervisor, James Schmitt, that there is nothing in this year’s budget for repairs to the Menomonee River Parkway. “Maybe in 2012,” he said; “we’ll see.” Thanking me for bringing it to his attention, he went on to suggest that more complaints from constituents would help him argue in favor of moving up the timetable on road improvements.

So, what say? Let’s give him plenty of ammunition: send a message to your county supervisor and tell him or her that our parks and parkways deserve better care, more funding.  We all deserve better than a smooth road to nowhere.

Where are today's Olmsteds and Whitnalls, who have the vision to improve our quality of life, our psychic and spiritual well-being, with the serenity and beauty of urban nature?

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