By Drew Olson Special to Published Jan 15, 2008 at 5:18 AM Photography: Andy Tarnoff

Face it, we all have things we love and hate about Milwaukee. But, complaining and focusing on the negative leads nowhere. So, in this column we highlight an issue that we think needs to be addressed, discussed and solved. Every "This Sucks" feature tells you why we think something sucks, offers commentary, opinions, solutions and, of course, gives you the chance to weigh in through our exclusive Talkback feature.

What sucks: Milwaukee's current freeway system doesn't connect the rapidly growing areas of the northern and western suburbs with each other or Downtown.

The increase in population and motor vehicle traffic in Germantown, Jackson, West Bend, Slinger, Cedarburg, Grafton, Saukville and other developing communities will coincide with the continuing deterioration of the current system and could result in gridlock on the roads and in the political system.

Why it sucks: Compared to other cities, Milwaukee's traffic problems rate relatively low on the gripe-o-meter. One of the things that newcomers cite as refreshing about the area is the ability to get just about in anywhere in "15 or 20 minutes."

Of course, some areas are more convenient than others.

Andy Kunkler lives in Jackson, but attends a lot of events Downtown and spends a fair amount of time visiting his sister and brother-in-law at their home in Wauwatosa.

In order to get to Highway 45, the closest major freeway, he has to "backtrack" and drive west on Highway 60 before eventually heading south and east to arrive at his destination.

"There really is no quick way," Kunkler said. "A long time ago, Highway 145 used to be the major highway. It's still a pretty good route, but they never really finished it."

That's a common phenomenon in these parts.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, various government planners compiled a series of projections and blueprints that culminated in the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) recommendation for 16 routes, several of which -- the East-West Freeway (I-94 and I-794), the North-South Freeway (I-43), the Zoo Freeway (Hwy. 45) and the Airport Freeway (I-894) -- form the core of the current system.

In the 1970s, the freeway-building effort began to encounter pockets of resistance. Several arteries were "stubbed" or never started.

A glance at SEWRPC reports from years ago shows projects that some travelers would welcome today, such as the Stadium Freeway, which was envisioned as a north-south artery that would run from Greenfield past the site of the old County Stadium and into Ozaukee County, where it would curve east and connect with what is now I-43. Only a small portion of the freeway, now known as US-41 to the north and Miller Park Way to the south, was completed.

Another proposal was for the Bay Freeway, an east-west link that would run from I-43 near Whitefish Bay westward to Oconomowoc. Only the westernmost portion of this road was built and it is designated as STH-16 in Pewaukee and Oconomowoc.

The Belt Freeway was proposed to connect the western and southern suburbs It was to start at the Fond du Lac Freeway in Germantown, go south through Menomonee Falls, Brookfield, New Berlin and Muskego and then dip east through Franklin and Oak Creek before connecting with the Lake Freeway. It was never built.

Given the fiscal problems facing state and local entities -- not to mention the reluctance of citizens to pay more taxes or trust their elected representatives to spend public money wisely -- it seems unlikely that any major freeway expansion will take place any time soon.

The late David F. Schulz, a former Milwaukee County executive, was working as executive director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University in 2000 when he published a paper called "Politics of Congestion: The Continuing Legacy of the Milwaukee Freeway Revolt."

"From a pure transportation perspective, the Milwaukee area would undoubtedly have been better off with construction of some or all of the unbuilt freeways," Schulz wrote. "Traffic congestion on the existing freeways has grown dramatically -- much in line with planners' projections, if not exceeding them.

"At the turn of the century, the Milwaukee area finds itself embroiled again in transportation debate involving if and how to rebuild the decaying freeways while offering transit alternatives -- perhaps through a light rail system. In a way, transportation decision deadlock has returned to Milwaukee."

While necessary, the ongoing renovation / rebuilding of the Marquette Interchange could hinder future projects because of its staggering price tag and drivers' aversion to further expense and inconvenience.

"What must concern those of us involved in public works as we move forward is that the anti-freeway activism of the '70s has continued to evolve and broaden, with the result that American society has essentially handed a veto power over public works improvements to increasingly smaller groups of people," Schulz wrote in 2000.

"Every public works official has a horror story where a needed project has been delayed or even killed by a seemingly very small group of opponents. Coupled with funding shortages, and increasingly onerous regulations, this has made the development of major public works projects increasingly difficult, time-consuming, and expensive.

"It has gotten to the point where one must wonder whether it is possible in the United States today to build needed new airports, roads, transit, and sewer and water capacity to meet the growing needs of our country. Anyone concerned with the escalating problems of air traffic congestion, highway congestion, transit, and the environment must appreciate that badly needed improvements are going unbuilt as a result."

What you can do to make it suck less: In essence, not much.

Solutions to transportation problems must be solved with levelheaded leadership, compromise and cooperation -- not exactly trademark elements in the American political system.

The best recent example of a successful project is the Lake Freeway South, which connected the Hoan Bridge with the suburbs of St. Francis, Cudahy, South Milwaukee and Oak Creek. The proposal, like others, had been quashed by persistent opposition but was revived.

Wrote Schulz: "Alternatives were drawn, public meetings held, tempers flared, and strong words flew. But in the end, most people in the community understood that the arterial proposal on right-of-way that was already almost completely empty offered a solution to growing problems of traffic running on surface streets through their neighborhoods.

"Today, you can drive on a handsome, largely grade-separated arterial constructed on the right-of-way once planned for the Lake Freeway South."

Can the spirit of cooperation and compromise that led to the Lake Freeway South be rekindled and applied to other projects? Yes. But, it's going to take reasoned discussion, vision, patience, time and a whole lot of money.

Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.