The December 22 crash on the Hoan Bridge at about 4:30 pm, which caused a massive back-up onsouthbound I-794, provided a graphic demonstration of how badly the freeway system is planned for getting traffic off onto alternate routes.
I-794 out of downtown may be the worst stretch of all. Cars coming off I-94 east onto I-794 could tell by the time they reached the lakefront that something was wrong, but it was too late to avoid the jam. Drivers coming up the spiral ramp onto the freeway were immediately stuck. None of them had any alternative options.
As drivers eventually observed, the car that rolled over was across the right two lanes just north of the Port of Milwaukee exit – the first chance anyone would have had to leave the freeway.
Cars exiting a jammed highway is not a perfect solution for anyone, but it does reduce the number of vehicles squeezing into the narrow remaining space, while allowing drivers who exit to choose alternative routes and keep moving. It would not be feasible to offer that option from the top of the bridge over the Milwaukee River’s outlet to Lake Michigan – but even a gated emergency-only “last chance” exit ramp could have made the job of police much easier. Shutting down the Milwaukee St. on-ramp would have done motorists a big favor – even if they would have griped about it at the time.
Three police cars eventually made their way to the accident site by flashing their lights and screaming their sirens at the already-jammed southbound cars. This too was poor planning. Police had better access by using the exit ramps at Port of Milwaukee, necessarily closed by the accident. It would have taken less time, and cars on almost any surface route had far more space to get out of the way.
There are other freeway stretches with options similarly missing. Vehicles westbound on I-794, if drivers choose not to exit at Milwaukee Street, are stuck on the freeway until at least the 26th and Clybourne exit. The most likely choke point for traffic back-ups westbound is just before that exit. Despite the work poured into rebuilding the Marquette interchange, lanes pouring in from three directions, consolidated in a quarter mile down to three lanes, was not designed to handle the actual traffic load.
The usual courtesies and competitive discourtesies played out as traffic inched toward the accident site. Some drivers in the main lanes tried to slow down and make room for cars coming in from the on-ramp… only to have drivers a bit further back honk loudly to complain that THEY weren’t let in too. Any experienced commuter knows that letting EVERYONE in means the good samaritan will never move forward at all. All lanes have to take turns for mutual consideration to work.
Nobody could see what the trouble was, or what lanes were open. Police had in fact closed two lanes. Some drivers in the middle lane were careful about letting cars in the right hand land shift left in front of them. When everyone then had to consolidate into the left-most lane, some left-lane drivers impatiently roard ahead, trying to block those who had to get over. Once past the overturned car, traffic moved smoothly. Fortunately, no additional collisions occured jockying for position to get around the accident already blocking traffic.