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The new Marquette Interchange is shown in this aerial photograph taken Thursday, Aug, 14, 2008. The new Marquette Interchange is shown in this aerial photograph taken Thursday, Aug, 14, 2008.

The new Marquette Interchange is shown in this aerial photograph taken Thursday, Aug, 14, 2008.

By Dave Umhoefer May 25, 2015

Accidents cut in half after Marquette Interchange work, roadbuilders say

If you’re a regular listener to Milwaukee Brewers radio broadcasts, one oft-repeated ad may ring a bell.

The radio spot by a group representing roadbuilding firms features a stat that’s a world apart from RBI or ERA or WHIP.

The ad’s opening pitch says: "Improving Wisconsin’s roads and highways is critical to reducing accidents and keeping our families safe."

Then the payoff pitch: "In fact, Milwaukee’s Marquette Interchange is a shining example of those successes. Accidents are down 50 percent and injury accidents are down 60 percent."

All-star numbers, if true.

The $800 million rebuilding of the Marquette, in the heart of downtown Milwaukee, was a huge traffic story from 2004 until the work was completed in 2008.

Since then, Milwaukee has moved on to other mega-highway renovation projects, including the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange and the re-decking of the Hoan Bridge.

Statewide, a glut of highway projects has led to concern that Gov. Scott Walker’s budget seeks too much borrowing for roadbuilding. The Legislature is reviewing options.

In the Marquette, the old cloverleaf was having trouble handling increasing traffic.  Motorists had to crisscross lanes to reach exits. Key components were falling apart and accidents were topping 600 a year.

The reconstruction didn’t solve all the design puzzles in the busy interchange.

Changes were needed in 2010 to slow traffic on the long curve tying I-94 eastbound to I-43 northbound after the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office and others raised concerns about accident rates.

In 2012, DOT had to make adjustments after backups and long delays plagued westbound I-794 in the Marquette.

But what about the overall claim?

Did the reconstruction add up to the big safety improvements claimed by the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association?

What the numbers show

Pat Goss and Kevin Traas from the group pointed us to the state Department of Transportation, which collects data on reported accidents from local law enforcement agencies.

The association cited a DOT chart comparing the average number of crashes annually in the three years before the rebuild (2001-2003) to the first three years after (2009-2011).

It showed annual crashes down 48.2 percent, and injury or fatal crashes down 60  percent.

By the numbers, that’s 365 fewer reported accidents every year, and 143 fewer per year involving injuries.

So those figures generally back up the group’s claim, albeit by rounding up from 48 percent to 50 percent.

Newer figures

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The numbers are out of date though, so we obtained five years of accident data from before and after the construction period. Those figures run through 2013.

There’s a caveat: The boundaries used for the interchange were somewhat different in DOT’s five-year comparison than in the three-year comparison.

But they help confirm the trends.

They also show a big drop in total accidents, though not quite as sharp: 45 percent for total accidents, and 55 percent for injury accidents.

The cumulative accident count from 1999-2003: 3,416.

The same count from 2009-2013: 1,890.

For injury accidents in the five-year comparison, there were 561 fewer in the five years after the rebuilding.

Michael Pyritz, DOT spokesman for the southeast region, attributed the improvement in accident rates to several factors.

The new interchange made exiting safer and improved sight lines while incorporating modern safety and efficiency designs, he said.

"We expect to see the same trend when the Zoo Interchange is done," Pyritz said.

As a double check on the DOT data, we got crash figures from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, which responds to most accidents in the Marquette Interchange.

That data showed somewhat smaller, but still significant, declines in accidents.

For example, comparing the three years before the project (2001-2003) vs. the latest three years (2012-2014), accidents are down 45 percent and injury accidents 49 percent, according to the Sheriff’s Department. The two agencies defined the interchange somewhat differently.

By another measure -- the three years before rebuilding vs. the first three years after (2009-2011) -- the Sheriff’s Office found 27 percent and 32 percent drops in total accidents and injury crashes, respectively.

That same comparison using the DOT data yielded the 48 percent and 60 percent drops. There’s a large discrepancy in which the Sheriff’s Office shows far fewer injury accidents before the project than are reported in the DOT figures.

Sheriff’s officials said a changeover in data collection methods, and late reporting of injuries by crash victims, likely explains some of the discrepancy.

Still, even with that, both agencies show a clear drop in accidents.

One final note: more traffic could also explain the higher numbers of accidents before the reconstruction.

But DOT data we reviewed on its website suggests that traffic volumes were not significantly higher, if higher at all, back then.

In the broad view, after 30 years of steady increases, miles traveled on state highways leveled off in 2000 and have not budged much. On I-94, which feeds the Marquette, a DOT study reported a 5 percent increase eastbound from the Brewers ballpark from 1989 to 2009.

All that might suggest that volume in the Marquette after the rebuild is roughly the same or higher than it was before construction.

Our rating

The Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association radio ad contended that "accidents are down 50 percent and injury accidents are down 60 percent" since the redesign of the Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee.

There are different ways to slice this, but the ad cites official state data that is backed up within a few percentage points by more recent figures, and is generally confirmed by local data.

We rate the claim True.

Our Sources

Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, radio ad, 2014-15

Interview with Michael Pyritz, spokesman, SE Region of DOT, May 13, 2015

Interview with Pat Goss, executive director, Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, and Kevin Traas, WTBA director of transportation policy and finance, May 2015

Interview with  Kenneth Yunker, executive director, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), May 21, 2015

Interview with Ash Anandanarayanan, director of transportation policy, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, May 20, 2015

Research on accident reporting by Wisconsin DOT

Marquette Interchange crash data, annual averages over a three year period

Marquette Interchange crash data, five year period

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More by Dave Umhoefer

Accidents cut in half after Marquette Interchange work, roadbuilders say

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