Milwaukee Biz Blog: Constructive criticism

Innovation needed to improve road projects

Each day I drive past orange barrels and careen around curves to avoid construction vehicles and abrupt changes to the traffic pattern. And, if you’re at all like me, patience wears a bit thin and time is spent grumbling endlessly, exchanging frustrated glares with other drivers, and scheming new routes for the next day. Unfortunately the next day arrives and new construction has emerged creating more angst, anger, and aggravation.

To what end? Of course road repairs, resurfacing, and reconfigurations are necessary to keep up with the demands placed on them. But it seems that by the time the repairs are finally completed, it’s time to start again because traffic has increased or new developments have forced previous “fixes” to be rethought.

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the advancements of the city and the brain trust of civil engineers imagining the future needs of our metro area and the surface streets and highways that serve them. However, I doubt I am alone in questioning the timing of the multiple detours and disruptions that seem to bottleneck everything with little regard for the commuters, local businesses affected by the closures, or major events such as back to school, city sporting events, festivals, or family vacations.

Back to the positive side of the equation for a moment – road construction and much needed care and maintenance of our nation’s infrastructure employs millions. Recent political campaigning has even underscored the vulnerability and suspect quality of our country’s crumbling highways, roads, and bridges. And I believe that Wisconsin is among the worst in the nation. I’m no expert, but my car shakes, rattles, and rolls down the streets and bi-ways of our lovely state in an alarmingly dissimilar manner than most other areas of the country that I have had the privilege to travel.

But rather than merely lamenting about the cementing, I believe we need to do a much better job thinking about how to keep traffic flowing and apply new innovation to the process.

To keep traffic flowing, I have a few observations to share. First, I think zipper mergers are ineffective. Sure drivers are supposed to stay in their lanes until they all but disappear and “nice” drivers in the adjacent lanes are to seamlessly let new cars join the parade. (Let me tell you from experience, this is hit and miss at best.) Second, informing drivers that a lane is closing or an exit ramp cannot be used at the point of closure does not generate good outcomes. Finally, signs rerouting traffic and detouring drivers to keep traffic moving appears to be a lost art form (what happened to the good old days?).

On the topic of innovation, I recently saw a story of a major bridge project being constructed in China wherein various sections of the bridge were pre-constructed on the ground and then moved via rails to literally build the soaring structure as the trucks rolled forward. The bridge was completed in a day! Now that’s innovation. Was it expensive? I imagine it was. However, the productivity gain and vastly reduced disruption to local businesses, commuters, and commerce must have provided incredible return on investment.

If something like the construct-as-you-go bridge is not feasible due to cost or rerouting traffic in a more logical manner is too complex, there has to be another solution that can be created. My late father used to often use the expression, “I have ideas I haven’t even thought of yet.” What ideas are on our horizon that will pave the way to more constructive results?

Dave Wendland is vice president of strategic relations for Waukesha-based Hamacher Resource Group Inc.

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