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$685,000 too much for construction Web site, critics say

Milwaukee — As the highway reconstruction efforts continue their development in downtown Milwaukee, complaints have been leveled at the amount of money, $685,000, spent on a Web site that will update people on the road's status.

The Web site for the Marquette Interchange Project was established in September by the Milwaukee Transportation Partners, a joint venture between the consultants working on the interchange, HNTP and CH2M Hill. Some say the payment from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation was excessive and the contract was not handled appropriately.

According to Brian Manthey, a spokesperson for the Marquette Interchange project, the site has been designed so drivers could maneuver downtown through the demolished bridges and closed off-ramps and lanes. To do so, they created a direction-finding tool that is continually updated with all construction events taking place, so its directions never take drivers through closed routes.

Users can also download a program called Traffic Bug to alert them of changes on routes they take regularly.

The site supplies data charts and an interactive map to keep drivers updated on traffic patterns. Information provided by the site includes the average speed limit on roads and updates on closed paths.
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“This site is the most informative site ever done for construction,” Marthey said. “You want to be alerted to what’s coming up 24-7.”

Despite the site’s interactive qualities, it is too expensive at a time when Wisconsin is experiencing “continual fiscal crisis,” said Gretchen Schmidt, co-chair of Citizens Allied for Sane Highways. Schmidt said that drivers, who normally use radio broadcasts to get traffic information, are not an ideal audience for a Web site.

“Spending this much is absurd,” Schmidt said. “They could have competitively let it out. They shouldn’t have stuck Wisconsin with the bill.”

Several local Web design firms said they could have done it for less, if not for the no-bid contract. Milwaukee-based companies Byte Studios and Think Global Technologies were quoted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as saying they could have done the project for less than half the amount, estimating their prices between $100,000 and $200,000.

Troy Janisch, president of Icon Interactive Group, said the arrangement eliminated the possibility of Wisconsin web developers from increasing features and lowering costs.

“Awarding a Web development contract for more than a half million dollars without asking other Wisconsin-based companies to bid shows a lack of confidence in Wisconsin’s technology industry,” Janisch said. “Thanks to the closed bid process that DOT used, we’ll never know … whether a more innovative or experienced Web development company could have provided an alternative or better online solution for less.”

Manthey said the process was from the start intended to be an “in-house” project by the Department of Transportation. When department research revealed that the process would be too expensive and would require hiring more people, they chose to transfer the project to Milwaukee Transportation Partners. To Manthey the choice was a natural progression, because they had the resources and training to handle the project.

Using MTP made sense, he said, because as the project’s main consultants, they are already familiar with the construction. They have immediate access to the data that the site relies on and can easily record changes.

“If you go outside … they would have had to spend hours getting all that stuff on the project,” Manthey said. “[MTP] have the traffic engineers and all the data.”

Manthey said that he thinks the site has proved its worth to users. In November it had around 31,000 unique visitors, he said. Significant events such as a bridge demolition on December 10 have pushed the number of daily hits past 200,000.

He also said connections from all 50 states had been logged.

“To people who use the Interchange less frequently … this site gives them an alternative they haven’t seen before,” Manthey said.

Les Chappell is a staff writer for WTN and can be reached at les@wistechnology.com.

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