In a renewed effort to convince the federal government to repair Port Washington’s breakwater, city officials are forming a committee to lobby Congress to fund the work before the structure fails or someone is seriously injured.
“It’s our goal to become the squeaky wheel. That’s the way things get done sometimes,” Ald. Bill Driscoll, a member of the committee, said Tuesday. “It doesn’t make sense to sit on this. It’s only a matter of time before this thing goes.
“To me, it’s just smart stewardship to do something now. God forbid someone gets injured out there.”
City officials have been concerned about the condition of the crumbling breakwater for at least the last four years and have lobbied the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and maintains the structure, to fix it.
“It all boils down to the federal budget,” City Administrator Mark Grams said. “They know the condition.”
The breakwater, which extends from the shore to the lighthouse, is a popular destination for tourists and residents alike. It offers stunning vistas of the city and the lake.
However, as the freeze-thaw cycle and wave action have worn away the rock, navigating the walkway has become treacherous. Large gaps between the rocks have formed.
The problem isn’t the western-most portion of the breakwater, where the metal sheetwall protects the structure, but the eastern segment, Grams noted.
“I used to love running out there,” Mayor Tom Mlada said. “I haven’t been out on the breakwater for years. I just don’t feel safe.”
Mlada said the city needs to make a concerted effort to have the breakwater repaired, calling it a health and safety issue as well as an economic development issue.
“There’s no doubt the breakwater is an attraction for people,” he said. “It’s a reason people come here, to get out on the lake.
“The danger is so imminent that we need to be out there asking for funding, asking for repairs. Bluntly, as a city, Port Washington deserves better.”
The Army Corps has said it will repair the breakwater if it fails completely, Mlada said, but that makes little sense.
“The overall cost of fixing it if it breaks would most definitely exceed the cost of fixing it,” he said.
Harbormaster Dennis Cherny told the Harbor Commission on Monday that the cost of repairing the breakwater is estimated at $1 million — $1,000 a foot for 1,000 feet.
Driscoll said he believes Congress could tap the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which brings in $1.5 billion from export and import taxes annually and has a surplus that his research shows is between $4.6 billion and $8 billion, to finance the repairs.
Since the fund was created in 1986, Congress has taken half the money to help balance the federal budget, Driscoll said, but much of the remainder of the fund has not been spent.
While the trust fund is largely intended to pay for harbor dredging, maintenance of breakwaters and jetties can also be paid from the fund, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Driscoll noted that the fund was intended to benefit commercial ports but isn’t necessarily limited to that. Since the money isn’t being spent, officials should try and tap it for work such as that needed in Port Washington, he said.
The fact Port is no longer a commercial port is one of the main reasons the breakwater isn’t a candidate for repairs by the Army Corps, Grams said.
But Mlada, citing the breakwater’s importance to the city’s tourism industry, said that is just as important as being a commercial harbor.
“While commercial ports might be the priority, it doesn’t mean we should be wiped off the slate,” he said. “We have a thriving charter industry that plays a huge role in our community, and a tourism industry that plays a big role.”
Port isn’t alone in facing this dilemma, Grams said.
“My guess is that Port’s condition is bad, but there are probably a lot of others that are a lot worse,” Grams said.
While officials at the Army Corps regional office understand the breakwater is in rough shape, they don’t allocate funds, Grams said.
“They don’t make the decisions,” he said.
But congressmen and senators do, Mlada said, and the city committee he envisions will spend its time trying to convince them to work on Port’s behalf.
He would like to see the group put together a presentation for Rep. Tom Petri, who is a longstanding member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Sen. Ron Johnson, Mlada said.
“I think we have to get this in front of the right folks,” he said. “Congressman Petri obviously has some clout. He wants to serve his district, so I’m hoping he will be receptive to our needs.
“We are a community of 11,0000, and we can make our voices heard. This is starting to affect us all.”
The more people who lobby federal officials, the better, Mlada said.
In the past, the city has tried to convince Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, as well as former Sen. Russ Feingold and Sen. Herb Kohl, to allocate funds to fix the breakwater as an earmark, Grams said, but to no avail.
“Right now, earmarks are a no-no,” Driscoll said.
The committee being formed by Mlada isn’t the only group that has set its eyes on breakwater repairs.
The city’s Waterfront Safety Committee is currently fundraising for a number of safety initiates at the lakefront, including $800 for adjustable ladders on the breakwater. Some of the existing ladders are missing rungs and end far short of the water. The committee is also raising $4,000 to mount several life rings on the pier.
In addition, the committee has said it wants to raise $50,000 to help fill holes in the breakwater and make the walkway safe.
This work is a temporary measure, Mlada said.
“While a patch is great and buys you a little time, it isn’t really what we need,” he said. “This is an effort that will take some time, but we’re looking for as proactive a solution as can be to make this safe for years to come.”
Image Information: THE LENGTH OF the Port Washington breakwater is in disrepair, but city officials are particularly concerned about the crumbling east section and the hazard it presents to the many people who walk on the structure. Another concern is ladders on the face of the breakwater that are missing so many rungs they are useless (bottom left). Photos by Sam Arendt