Wis. Department of Transportation U.S. Hwy. 41 Upgrade
Transit with a Native Touch
Jeffrey Johnson (l) of JW Johnson &
Associates and Ronald Montano of WisDOT
have been involving Native American
workers and companies in the U.S. 41
By Jonathan Gramling
WisDOT, the Wis. Department of Transportation, took away two major lessons from its
successful completion of the Marquette Interchange project in Milwaukee, part of which
cut through the African American community. One was that a project could successfully
engage many minority and women-owned businesses in the project. The other was that
the design of the project could give cultural recognition to the people affected by the
project. When it came time to work on the U.S. 41 reconstruction, WisDOT took these
lessons to heart.
In many ways, U.S. 41, that crowded and drab ribbon of concrete and asphalt that
winds around Lake Winnebago and follows the Fox River to Green Bay, is the gateway to
Indian Country in northern Wisconsin. It has been long overdue for a major overhaul.
WisDOT joined with members of Wisconsin’s Native tribes to design and construct the
Lake Butte de Morts Causeway and many of the bridges and overpasses that are a part of
U.S. 41 as it winds its way to Green Bay and the Oneida reservation. “The idea behind this
is that all 11 tribes in Wisconsin have one time or another lived, hunted, fished, fought
battles or buried their dead along Lake Butte de Morts,” said Ronald Montano, a DBE
support engineering specialist.
The look of the causeway will have a Native touch as Native designs are incorporated into the structure and the multi-modal
components of the causeway reflect the history and culture of Wisconsin’s Native people. “There is a bike and walking path on the east
edge of the bridge,” said Montano. “And there is also a walk that goes down under the bridges so the fishermen can go down there and
fish from shore. We’re going to have lighting and security cameras under there for safety. Some of the nodes depicting the history and
culture of each Wisconsin tribe will be down on the fisherman walks so that you can go down there and read them there. Each one of the
nodes has the turtle design on the face base of it because the turtle is important to all Native people.”
In order to ensure that the designs and work were culturally relevant, WisDOT involved Native people in the design. “The design is
by Karl Lusis who owns Standing Stone Design, said Jeffrey Johnson of JW Johnson & Associates who is a consultant on the project.
“He’s the first Native American licensed architect in Wisconsin. He worked on the Lake Butte de Morts bridge and he consulted with all of
the tribes to design all of the nodes and the artwork that goes along it. And then, he worked with a group of artists — I believe most are
Oneida artists — for all of the designs in the bridges and overpasses in Brown County through Green Bay.”
Since the project was going through Indian Country, WisDOT also wanted to make sure that Native people were involved in the
construction project. That task fell on the shoulders of Montano, Johnson and Gwen Carr who are all Native people. The results have
“When we started with this work about two years ago, we had seven Native companies designated as DBE contractors,” Montano
said. “We now have 70 and we have more in the wings in about 1-2 years. The majority of them are Oneida companies because that is
where this highway goes to, right on the edge of the Oneida reservation. That is why there is a big push for them. Some of the businesses
were already there. Some of the other businesses wanted to do something, but they didn’t know how to do it. They didn’t know how to get
involved with WisDOT and didn’t know the steps. That’s what the U.S. 41 Outreach Office does. We have community-sensitive design
people. We have outreach people who go out to the community. They do ‘drop and knocks’ where they take flyers out that advertise the
meetings for the community. We are just continuously coming up with different ways to keep them involved, so they aren’t surprised
when the work happens.”
The work has paid off. According to Johnson, approximately $22 million of the work had gone to Native contractors. And the work is
slated to continue until 2016.
In design and practice, the U.S. project is paying off for Native people and the people of Wisconsin.