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Children's Court concerned about access during Zoo Interchange project

Center wasn't involved in planning until last week

Oct. 17, 2012

The presiding judge at Milwaukee County Children's Court Center said construction on Watertown Plank Road related to the Zoo Interchange project will present a major challenge to those who require access to the center.

The center, at 10201 W. Watertown Plank between Mayfair Road and Highway 45, handles juvenile and child court matters, and houses juvenile detention.

Watertown Plank in front of the center will be rebuilt, and the ramps that give access to the highway will be replaced with a broad, looping, high-capacity interchange, including the addition of a new lane west of the interchange passing in front of the center. The interchange has an estimated construction cost of $70 million, according to state Department of Transportation communications manager Emlynn Grisar.

"It appears it's going to … have a major impact on people getting to and from the Children's Court Center," Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Donald said this week.

Donald said his first contact with DOT planners was just last week, when he called the county about a crosswalk from the bus stop across Watertown Plank. "In the course of those discussions, they came out and brought some maps and talked about the whole construction project that is going to take place," he said.

He said he couldn't say if other court officials had been contacted.

"I think they either overlooked the Children's Court Center, or just weren't aware of the number of people that come and go," he said.

Donald said 455 people work at the center, and his "best-guess estimate" was that an additional 650 people come through it on a daily basis.

"WisDOT met with Children's Court last week," Grisar said in an email. "We're over a year away from construction at their entrances. We look forward to coordinating with the Children's Court over the next year."

A DOT fact sheet about the changes coming to Watertown Plank emphasizes new ramps and uninterrupted access to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center and Children's Hospital, but doesn't mention Children's Court.

Eight judges and three court commissioners operate courtrooms at Children's Court, and they are staffed by clerks, court reporters, and bailiffs from the Sheriff's Department. In addition, district attorneys, public defenders, probation officers, guardian ad litems - who represent the interest of children involved in the court system - and others have offices there and appear in court proceedings. Each of these offices has support staff, and private attorneys, case managers and jury members come and go for appearances in specific cases.

Dozens of members of the public are called to court every day, many accompanied by family members. Donald said many of these take the bus to the center and are dropped off on the opposite side of busy Watertown Plank.

Bus routes are likely to change during construction, and Donald said one proposal for the crosswalk would move it further from the center, to a spot near Innovation Drive to the west.

Jacqueline Janz, a spokeswoman for the Milwaukee County Transit System, said that on an average weekday, 22 people get off the bus at the center. Donald said that sounded low to him.

"Currently we are looking to a new alternative bus stop location for that area, that has a more controlled intersection, but at this point we are still reviewing it," Janz said. She said a nearby intersection with a traffic signal was being looked at, but wouldn't name it.

Travel time is a factor the system considers, she said.

In addition to the courts, the detention operation at the center also generates traffic fromstaff, visitors, police officers and turnover of the inmate population. In 2011, it had an average monthly population of 89 juveniles, according to a county study.

Construction planners "were very responsive" to his concerns and were going to set up another meeting, Donald said.

"The team has come a long way in our coordination, but there's still a lot of work to do," Grisar said.

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