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High water again stymies Milwaukee Street Bridge project


Blame a fall rainy spell and high water on the Rock River that just won’t quit.

Once again—in fact, for the third time since October 2018—high water on the Rock River is hampering work on the chronically delayed, multimillion dollar Milwaukee Street bridge replacement project in downtown Janesville.

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State Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Bie wrote in an email to The Gazette that the DOT can’t at the moment determine whether bridge contractor Zenith Tech will hit or miss an Oct. 27 completion date that is four months behind the project’s original timeline.

Bie indicated the DOT is preparing a number of “contingencies” in case the project runs into late fall or early winter—including discussions on whether the DOT might open part of the bridge to traffic even if some portions of the project aren’t completed.

The bridge remains closed to traffic just as it has for the last year for a project that initially was slated to be finished in June. On Friday, a Gazette reporter observed a handful of contractors scattered around the job site. The crew worked in drizzling rain in an area where Milwaukee Street ties into the bridge structure.

Bie wrote that work on the bridge’s south arches, a portion of work necessary to bring the project to completion, was delayed last week because of high water that arrived after three weeks of rainy weather.

Before crews can tackle the arch work, Bie wrote, contractors must first remove temporary metal supports attached to the underside of the bridge deck. But crews can’t reach those supports because the river is too high.

Oct. 27 was the targeted completion date Zenith Tech gave the DOT in early July after it became clear the contractor would not complete the project by summer. Bie said as of late this week it was “undetermined” when the bridge might open to traffic.

“The completion date is dependent upon when river levels drop to a point where the contractor can have barge access to the underside of the bridge. Once the access to the underside of the bridge is restored, then a new completion date could be estimated,” Bie wrote.

Anthony Wahl 

The Milwaukee Street bridge project has slipped months behind its original completion date and could fall further behind because of high water levels on the Rock River. A Wisconsin Department of Transportation official said the project could take until late fall or early winter to be completed.

On Friday, the river gauge at Afton measured 10.3 feet, well into minor flood stage, according to National Weather Service data. The river has been in either flood action or minor flood stage since Oct. 1 and is predicted to remain at or near 10.5 feet into next week.

That’s almost a mirror image of river conditions last fall, when unusually rainy weather swelled the river to flood stage for weeks between October and December. That led to delays of about 2½ months when contractors were trying to remove the old bridge pieces.

Between mid-April and mid-May of this year, the project ran into another set of delays when the river became swollen again because of heavy spring rains and runoff.

Even if the next few weeks brings unusually dry weather, it would leave Zenith Tech scant time to catch up on critical portions of the project to meet a deadline at the end of October. Meanwhile, Zenith Tech has faced DOT penalties of $2,000 a day for the last several weeks after the bridge project failed to reach an earlier, mid-August wrap-up date the contractor agreed to, the DOT said.

It’s not clear whether the DOT would continue issuing daily penalties to Zenith Tech during this latest bout of high water.

Bie wrote that the DOT is monitoring river levels, and the agency is considering possible cold-weather “contingencies” that might come into play if river flooding continues to stall the project and work continues through late fall and into winter.

“It is possible to do much of the work yet during the fall and early part of the winter season. Protection of the work from cold weather is another option under consideration,” Bie wrote.

Bie wrote that “a partial opening of the bridge to traffic is another option under consideration” and is among options the DOT, the contractor and the city would remain in contact about, but he did not give a timeline on that option.

He wrote that opening the bridge to traffic before crews finish “could have a negative impact on contractor operations when water levels drop” because then crews might be trying to work under the bridge with traffic running over the bridge’s surface.

In a pair of emails Wednesday and Thursday, city Public Works Director Paul Woodard told The Gazette he was told by DOT and project officials during a meeting earlier this week the bridge project remained on pace to be completed by “late October or early November.”

Woodard deferred more detailed comment to the DOT and the DOT’s third-party project manager because, he said, the bridge project is being managed by the state, not the city.

On Friday, Woodard said the city would be meeting with the DOT and the contractor in the coming week. He said he expects the city will learn more about the status of the project and the impact recent weather has had on it.

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After 38 years as a public defender, Eric Nelson calls it a career


Eric Nelson has seen a lot as a public defender in Rock County.

After 38 years and many cases won and lost, Nelson is retiring. It was a difficult choice, but he made it thinking he and his colleagues have made a difference.

“I think we were able to build a high-quality system, and I think most people that know anything about us have a fair amount of respect for the work that we do,” he said.

In addition to his work as a public defender, Nelson helped manage Janesville’s state public defenders office. He devoted a lot of time to kick-starting treatment courts in Rock County for people battling addiction.

While cleaning out his desk this week, he found a letter from a family whose son went through treatment court for an OWI case. In the letter, the man’s mother said treatment court gave her son back to her.

“That’s probably the most rewarding thing is those parents and family members who were appreciative of getting their loved one back as a result of them successfully completing treatment court,” he said.

Nelson, a Beloit resident, said he never considered leaving the public sector. He got involved with indigent defense while in law school in Chicago and never looked back.

He learned plenty over the years, he said, but he was surprised by how his career helped him develop more compassion.

“One thing this job has caused me to believe that I didn’t start out believing is how much we’re all products of our genes, our life experiences, how we’ve been raised, our educations and opportunities,” he said.

“I think that’s something that caused me to view the people that we serve with a lot more compassion and understanding for why folks are the way they are sometimes.”

Nelson was co-counsel for an attempted homicide case in the 1990s that made history in Wisconsin law—his client was the first person in the state to be acquitted in a jury trial thanks to DNA evidence.

But not all his cases were clear victories. He still struggles with a case in which he represented a 12-year-old boy who was charged, along with other co-defendants, in the death of a Beloit teenager.

The conviction was later vacated, but to this day Nelson swears the boy was innocent.

“It was pretty devastating at the time because this case went on for quite awhile, and we really got to know that young man,” he said.

He said indigent defense lawyers in Wisconsin need more help and that caseloads are overwhelming. He said Wisconsin has a mass incarceration problem, and he worries that prosecuting attorneys sometimes have more power than judges or defense attorneys.

While there have been difficulties, he has appreciated his time in Rock County.

“I appreciate the good people that I worked with in the courthouse and all the goodwill and appreciation I’ve received from folks, and I especially appreciate the judges that have taken on treatment court operations,” he said.

He hopes those still in the public defender’s office after his retirement will continue to fight for those who can’t.

“Check your ego at the door and try to work to change the system,” Nelson said. “You can accomplish some marginal improvements in the system if you don’t care who gets the credit for it.”

Angela Major 

Badger’s Will Faul (66), left, hurries toward Delavan-Darien quarterback Oliver Hetzel (4), right, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, at Badger High School in Lake Geneva.