Coalition proposes alternative plan for Milwaukee freeway project

Environmental advocates roll out plan to scrap additional lanes, add transit, pedestrian and biking features

By: - September 15, 2021 6:45 am
Milwaukee East-West Corridor-I-94

Milwaukee’s Interstate 94 East-West corridor. (Ken Lund | Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

With more bicycles, more buses and less highway pavement, environmental and transit advocates proposed an alternative Tuesday to a controversial state plan to widen part of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee.

The pitch is the latest step in efforts by critics to push back against the state’s $1.1 billion plan for Milwaukee’s I-94 East-West corridor following objections this past winter.

After Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) moved to revive the project in 2020 with backing from business interests and construction unions, community opposition arose, escalating early this year. In April, the Evers administration announced it would postpone starting the work and undertake a new environmental review, a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The project is included in the state’s 2021-2023 budget.

The current pause is an opportunity to rethink the project, according to Gregg May, transportation policy director for 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, one of several environmental groups behind the plan.

“If we are going to spend a billion dollars, we should do it right,” May said during a Tuesday morning virtual press conference to announce the alternative proposal.

When the coalition commissioned its report, he added, “we were looking to find options that will better promote access to the surrounding neighborhood, will reduce carbon emissions and will improve access to jobs, health care and basic goods for everyone, not just suburban commuters.”

Revived from Walker era

The DOT plan for the I-94 East-West corridor project calls for rebuilding the 60-year-old, 3.5 mile highway. In the process, it would be widened from its current six-lane configuration to eight lanes. Proponents contend that would relieve congestion in both directions.

The I-94 East-West corridor project was originally proposed and designed during the administration of former Gov. Scott Walker, who later shelved it in 2017 for lack of funding.

The project would displace people in neighborhoods that stretch over more than 50 blocks — where the residents are predominantly Black people. Opposition extends beyond that, however.

“Expansion will increase transportation emissions at a time when we need to be doing the opposite,” said May. 

Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, who took part in Tuesday’s press conference, added that the additional road surface would increase storm water runoff, which could lead to sewer overflows in Milwaukee.

Critics also contend that congestion along the corridor is mild to begin with, but that expanding lanes won’t ease it in any case. And former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist has argued that the proposed expansion goes against the stated priorities of President Joe Biden’s administration and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to turn away from city highway projects that contribute to urban segregation and the destruction of Black neighborhoods.

‘Fix at Six’

The plan introduced Tuesday is called “Fix at Six” because its centerpiece is to maintain the current six-lane highway. It calls for:

  • Proceeding with the needed pavement and bridge repairs, without adding additional lanes.
  • Creating a new bus rapid transit (BRT) line that would run on National and Greenfield avenues, which form an east-west street corridor across Milwaukee and adjacent communities on the near south side of the interstate.
  • Adding new bicycle and walking thoroughfares, drawing on a Milwaukee bicycle master plan from 2010.
  • Turning Wisconsin Highway 175, a short, north-south freeway near the Milwaukee Brewers baseball stadium, into a boulevard that would accommodate bikes and pedestrians as well as vehicles.

The plan also envisions additional BRT routes and a commuter rail line linking Milwaukee County with Waukesha County to the west. For the longer term it prescribes new housing and zoning policies that would encourage planned, mixed-use development near transit stops.

The plan was supported by 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, ACLU of Wisconsin, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Sierra Club-Wisconsin Chapter, Wisconsin Environment, and the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG). The coalition commissioned Mark Stout, a former New Jersey transportation commissioner and now a transportation planning consultant, to prepare the plan.

Rep. Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee), whose state Assembly district includes much of the area covered by the plan, was among lawmakers in Evers’ own party who had opposed reviving the Walker-era plan for the highway. He had many reasons, Riemer said Tuesday, starting with the fact that “expanding the freeway would destroy the homes of people I represent.”

Riemer, who learned of the new proposal when it was released Tuesday morning, said in his brief review it appeared to be a promising alternative.

“You don’t want to build infrastructure in a way that makes the place unpleasant or impossible to be in. And freeways, by and large, tend to do that,” Riemer said. “So I think it’s a proposal worth looking at. I think the public ought to have their say on how a project like this, which their tax dollars go toward, should be built.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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