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Connectivity issues: Benefits questioned for South Bridge Connector

By John McCracken

BROWN COUNTY – From conception to estimated completion, the South Bridge Connector project in De Pere will take upwards of 64 years to finish, and at this point in time there are questions still to be answered.

A bridge in south De Pere was recommended in the 1968 Brown County Comprehensive Plan to connect De Pere, Lawrence and Ledgeview.

In 1996, 28 years after conception, the Brown County Year 2020 Land Use and Transportation Plan named Rockland Road as its primary recommendation for crossing the Fox River.

On Oct. 26 of this year, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) and Brown County announced the finalized route for the project, confirming the 1996 plan.

The project will follow Southbridge and Red Maple roads from Interstate 41 east to the Fox River and, once across, follow Rockland Road and a new road to reach the intersection of County Highways X and GV in the Town of Ledgeview.

Cole Runge, Brown County planning director, said work will begin on the west end and work to the east over time.

“Assuming the funding that we need, at the time we need it, is available, we expect the work that’s going to be necessary to do the entire corridor, including the bridge, to take until about 2032,” Runge said.

He said there have been numerous public comments throughout the process, including an in-person public comment session at the Brown County Fairgrounds this past July.

“De Pere, Ledgeview, Lawrence, and a lot of other communities in that area said as communities, ‘We prefer this location,’” Runge said.

Ledgeview growing

Despite the decades-long process, development in Ledgeview has continued with the preferred route in mind, said Phil Danen, chairman of the Ledgeview town board.

In the last 10 to 15 years, he said Ledgeview has been redeveloping the area along the X and GV corridor as a business/neighborhood district.

However, Danen said he isn’t holding his breath for the project to stay on track.

He said finishing the project in the next 10 to 15 years, an estimate provided by Brown County, would be a quick turn-around.

“If we were looking at it in 2001 or 2002, when the De Pere bridge opened up, and said we should have it by 2020, that was 18 years with an idea back then,” Danen said. “We’re not that much further along.”

Ledgeview is one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Brown County, and the growth of the region has created a blend between its agricultural roots and new residential construction.

In the past decade, the town’s average estimated residential property value has increased by 140 percent to $251,000, according to Zillow, a leading real estate website.

At the same time, the town’s equalized residential property value has increased 41.5 percent, or more than $377 million to $908 million, according to figures from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

The Town of Ledgeview Comprehensive Plan 2035 projects a population growth of 79 percent, from 7,455 to 11,760, from 2010 to 2035.

Ledgeview has continued its growth with the construction of a new residential area along the newly-expanded Brayden Lane.

Danen said Brayden Lane was expanded in anticipation of connecting more of the housing and commercial developments popping up in the area.

Despite the pace of the south bridge, Ledgeveiw is not slowing down, he said.

“The anticipation is that you’re going to have a commercial district on GV,” Danen said.

Land use questions

Ledgeview’s growth kindles questions about the use of land surrounding the new bridge and how those choices will affect its current, mainly agricultural, character.

The Town of Ledgeview Comprehensive Plan 2035 projects a loss of 933 acres now used for agriculture, mostly for new housing.

Data collected by American Farmland Trust and Conservation Science Partners illustrates a similar national trend of farmland lost to development.

A report from the group says 9.1 million acres of Wisconsin land is described as best suited for prolonged production of food and crops.

Nearly 250,000 acres of this land was developed from 2001 to 2016, and, of that, 62 percent was converted to low-density residential (LDR) use.

Farmland for sale off County Road GV in Ledgeview illustrates the changing landscape in southern Brown County. John McCracken Photo

“The biggest impact this project will have is the continued consumption of Brown County’s world-class farmlands and that conversion to single family homes,” said Gregg May, transportation policy analyst for 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, a land use and transportation advocacy non-profit based in Madison.

An LDR area has homes with large lots, much like what is flourishing in municipalities on both sides of the Fox River.

The Town of Lawrence, much like Ledgeview, has seen recent growth.

Census data estimate population growth of roughly 26 percent in the last nine years.

Zillow estimates a property value growth of roughly 37 percent in the past decade with current prices averaging $306,000 for a home.

DOR statistics list Lawrence’s residential equalized value growing more than 45 percent in the past decade from $317.8 million to $586.2 million.

Brown County is saddled with zoning that creates LDR or moderate-to-high-density dwellings, zoned as urban and highly developed, May said.

There is an alternative option between the two stark realities of wide open suburbia and dense, luxury high-rises, he said.

The Missing Middle is a concept in urban planning that creates a range of house-scale buildings with multiple units – compatible in scale and form with detached single-family homes – located in a walkable neighborhood.

“If we had the kind of flexibility that would allow live/work units or townhouses to be built, I think we can see more people being interested in living closer to Green Bay and in downtown areas because you really are limited to almost a black-and-white situation,” May said.

Loss of identity

As the suburban ring around Green Bay expands, one local expert worries about a loss of community identity.

Marcelo Cruz, associate professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, whose research focuses on ethnic identity and land use, said this spreading urban area leads him to believe Brown County has two areas which could be considered a downtown.

The first is the Stadium District by Lambeau Field, home to bars, restaurants and hotels, and stretching as far as the Bay Park Square Mall.

The second downtown is historical downtown Green Bay, including segments of Washington Street, The Olde Main Business District and the Broadway District.

“During the day, it’s federal workers and state workers and in the evenings, it’s deserted,” Cruz said of downtown Green Bay. “On the weekends, it’s deserted.”

Cruz said connectivity and accessibility are major benefits to large-scale projects like the South Bridge Connector.

However, he said he worries development along these corridors takes away from an area’s distinctiveness.

“We create these big ugly blobs of national chains and commercial placelessness,” he said. “There’s just no sense of place.”

Cruz said this loss of place could be attributed to Green Bay’s growing urban sprawl.

In a 2014 study from the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center and Smart Growth America, Green Bay ranked 204th out of 221 metropolitan areas assessed for accessibility, density of developments and use of land.

South on Interstate 41, Appleton ranked much higher at 17th.

An excess of manure

The metropolitan expanse into agricultural land in southern Brown County could also have environmental effects.

As the South Bridge project rounds the corner on a multi-generational timeline, one potential problem includes an excess of manure.

Brown County ranked fifth in the state in cattle and calves, with 125,000 head in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There are currently 20 concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in Brown County, the second highest number in the state.

The Tier 1 Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the South Bridge Connector lists potential concern with the large amount of manure created in the Lower Fox River basin, estimated to be over 900 million gallons annually in Brown, Outagamie, Calumet and Winnebago counties.

This concentration of manure production could lead to high levels of phosphorus reaching the Fox River, its tributaries, and the Bay of Green Bay and will be monitored under Tier 2 evaluations.

High levels of phosphorus deplete oxygen inside of a body of water, leading to uninhabitable conditions for fish and other living organisms, also known as dead zones.

Copious amounts of cattle excrement can also contaminate groundwater.

East of Brown County, Kewaunee County is currently dealing with cow manure polluting private wells.

Cruz said developing farmland into housing, and the concentration of CAFOs, could lead to a bottleneck creating a storm of manure problems in the future as human and bovine concentrations continue to rise.

Everybody wants a place in the country

Hans and Monique Herzog operate LedgeCrest Family Farm, a fourth- and fifth-generation family farm in Wrightstown.

To the Herzogs, the development in southern Brown County has not caused much concern, apart from watching others adjust to rural life’s smells.

Because of some of the larger operations surrounding their land, there can be an abundant aroma, often being hauled on the road.

Some newcomers to the area have grievances with this practice, Monique said.

She said everybody wants a place in the country, but rural life doesn’t always smell like roses.

To Hans, farms growing larger is part of the process.

“Given the demand of the world food market, it would be really hard to go back to the way things were 50 years ago,” he said.

Growth is inevitable to Hans, who sees the south bridge project as an indicator of the region’s growth and potential for more customers.

Given recent development in the area, Monique said her family has been approached to sell the land.

She said selling the property would make the family well off, given the price.

“We’re dedicated to the way we’re farming,” Monique said, “and that money is not worth it to us, personally.”

Second place environmentally

The DOT and the Federal Highway Administration approved the EIS for the South Bridge Connector project, which was finalized Oct. 16.

According to the EIS, the selected route could impact 12 to 20 acres of wetlands and crosses three streams/rivers, one floodplain and three floodway areas.

The alternate route, connecting Scheuring and Heritage roads, could impact five to eight acres of wetlands and would cross four streams/rivers, two floodplains, and four floodway areas.

The selected Rockland and Red Maple Road route will cut across the Fox River in southern De Pere, as seen from the western side of the river. John McCracken Photo

The EIS report selected the alternate as the environmentally preferred route, but those plans have been shelved.

Lead agencies concluded the benefits of Red Maple/Rockland Road route outweigh the potential for decreased environmental impact from the alternate.

Overwhelming support, including letters from all eight affected communities regarding planned development, and public input led to the Red Maple/Rockland Road route being selected as the preferred route.

The tier process allows for more opportunities for detailed reports along the way, and as funding becomes available, more environmental studies and public input will be required before construction can begin.

Potential economic effects

Supporters of the South Bridge Connector hope it lives up to its name by linking growing communities and boosting accessibility, all positive impacts to the local economy.

The City of De Pere is betting on a unique, accessible downtown paying off in the long run.

“We’re hoping that it will allow (people) the opportunity to enjoy downtown,” said Dan Lindstrom, De Pere development services director.

Lindstrom said the congestion from pass-through traffic will be alleviated, which can benefit commuters going to and through De Pere’s downtown district.

Business owners on Main Avenue on the west side of the Fox River noted the difficulty customers experience with on-street parking due to congestion, according to the EIS.

“If one (route) allows people to converse through to I-41 smoother, it will help alleviate some of the traffic congestion that we are seeing on both sides of the river,” said Lindstrom. “It will allow both business parks to continue to flourish as well as open up lands on the east side for additional development that is slated for in the future land use map.”

Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach said infrastructure is needed to accommodate Brown County’s population growth, which is one of the few counties in the state with both an anticipated younger and growing population.

Streckenbach said when he first came into office in 2011, the county was spending around $7 million annually to fix aging infrastructure. Now it’s up to $10 million.

“We’re fixing our roads and our roads are in great condition,” he said.

TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation research group, released a 2018 report citing a large majority of Wisconsin roads being in poor or mediocre condition.

Conditions of Wisconsin roads were estimated by TRIP to cost taxpayers $1,456 per driver annually in the Green Bay-Appleton-Oshkosh urban area.

“This is a bad idea,” May of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin said of the South Bridge Connector. “We haven’t been able to maintain our existing local roads and bridges, so we don’t need to be building new infrastructure adding to that inevitable maintenance bill.”

Looking specifically at the new Interstate 41 interchange at Southbridge Road, Streckenbach said the collaborative efforts of numerous Brown County municipalities, the DOT and separate gubernatorial administrations all aligning on the location of the selected route is an indicator of success and a premonition recognizing growth in Brown County and the northern Fox Valley region.

He also said getting the state to pay for the new interchange is no small feat.

“The cost estimate is anywhere between $35 to $45 million,” Streckenbach said. “That’s now money we locally won’t have to fund.”

According to the EIS study, the preferred route was selected because it reduces travel times by 1,800 hours a day for all commuters.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, from 2018, including Washington, D.C., and excluding Wyoming, ranked Wisconsin as the 12th shortest commute.

Brown County’s mean commute time is just under 19 minutes, compared to the 22-minute mean for the rest of the state.

May said he agrees commuters will win, but is doubtful the South Bridge Connector will be an economic boon.

“The real winners of this are the suburban commuters who will use this as a bypass,” May said.

Congestion Con, a study focusing on the perils of transportation projects, says eliminating congestion is the wrong goal.

The study cites congestion as a symptom of a successful economy.

“It encourages and supports further sprawling development, which will inevitably end up congesting this road again, and we’ll be back at square one, which is the cycle we’ve been in in this state and across America for the last 50 to 70 years,” May said.

Pointing to a March 2020 study from the advocacy group Transportation for America, May said he believes the development that will line the corridor will create an endless loop of growth and congestion.

Brian Johnson, executive director of On Broadway, Inc. and alderperson for a near westside district in Green Bay, said he doesn’t believe the South Bridge Connector will have a dramatic effect on the Broadway District or downtown Green Bay, but the project points to the region’s growth as a whole.

“The fact that the growth is occurring in spite of everything is a really remarkable thing,” he said.

Green Bay’s population grew 1.3 percent since the last census, while Brown County’s population grew 7.21 percent in that same time, according to census estimates.

When asked how development in southern Brown County could conflict with areas that market themselves as destinations – such as downtown De Pere, or Green Bay’s three business improvement districts, Downtown Green Bay, Olde Main Street and Broadway – Streckenbach said it’s up to local municipalities to generate interest for potential visitors or future residents.

He said major cities across the U.S. are facing challenges while their outer rings grow, even though Green Bay remains an economic engine for the county.

“There’s no surprise that the surrounding villages and towns in Brown County are growing,” Streckenbach said.

When asked how growth in Brown County alongside the South Bridge Connector could affect areas of downtown Green Bay, Mayor Eric Genrich’s office declined to comment, saying “more impacted communities and their leaders should respond.”

The road into the future

The next steps for the South Bridge Connector include a budget of $1.2 million toward engineering and design work, with $600,000 coming from the county and the remainder split between De Pere and Lawrence.

The future of the east portion of the South Bridge Connector includes a bypass road meant to improve operational and safety problems between Appleton and De Pere along Interstate 41.

The next phase of the project will also include construction of segment one between Packerland Drive in Lawrence and Lawrence Drive in the City of De Pere.

Runge said the directly impacted communities have mapped the segments of the corridors, plotting rights of way for future roads and aligning development along the route.

“It’s been officially mapped, as they say, for at least 20 years.” he said.

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