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Bill repays city’s regional vision for Kaukauna lift bridge

Kaukauna will receive a $1.76 million state grant to repair the Veterans Memorial Bridge lift mechanism by May 1, 2021. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s newly formed $75 million Multimodal Local Supplement grant program will pay for 80 percent of the project, or $1.76 million, while Kaukauna taxpayers will be responsible for 20 percent, or $440,000.

By David Horst, donor services & environmental grant manager, Community Foundation

For a former journalist, it’s often easier to recall the politics of an event long ago than the factual details. Such is the case with Kaukauna’s Veterans Memorial lift bridge.

David Horst

I’m cloudy on the dates and the cost of construction, but I do remember Ron Van De Hey, Kaukauna’s mayor at the time, expending every bit of his political capital to get his Common Council to agree to pay extra for a bridge that moved up and down back in 1983. I was observing all of this from the media table at Kaukauna’s new city hall – the one before the latest new city hall – as The Post-Crescent’s newest reporter.

The aldermen could have saved a wad of taxpayer money by building a fixed bridge. They also would have ended the possibilities of boaters being able to navigate from Lake Winnebago to the mouth of the Fox River, into the Green Bay and on to Lake Michigan and the world. And it would have been Kaukauna’s fault – forever.

Van De Hey was feeling pressure from the county, state and even federal levels, not to mention business leaders and boat owners. The mayor also was legitimately trying to be a nonparochial resident of the Fox Valley.

He lobbied the aldermen relentlessly until a majority voted to see the bigger picture and pay extra for a lift bridge.

An unusual quasi-government organization called the Fox River Navigational System Authority has fielded all of the waterway’s other problems ever since. It is financed by an amount equal to what would have been the cost to mothball the system of 17 locks given to the state by the Army Corp. That money is invested and dispensed by the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region and our counterparts in Green Bay and Oshkosh.

Recently, when it came time for the state to stand up for the regional good and open navigation, it appeared that Madison had a much foggier memory about Kaukauna acting for the good of the Fox Valley than my own. Kaukauna was under orders from the U.S. Coast Guard to repair the bridge, work estimated to cost $2.2 million. The city was expecting the state to take the long end of an 80-20 cost split, but the governor’s veto removed it from the biennial budget bill.

Ironically, it was the absence of boat traffic – caused first by an ugly eel and more recently by a small but disruptive fish – that created most of the lift bridge’s problems. The hefty cables that lift the bridge had sat idle for so long that they were permanently curved around the pulleys.

Last week, the Legislature created the new Multi-Model Local Supplement program for urgent transportation needs. It made repair of Kaukauna’s lift bridge the first funded project– on an 80-20 split.

Be assured, Fox Valley legislators had to put out political markers with colleagues all across the state. That’s a bit of politics their colleagues will remember.

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