Jeramey Jannene
Transportation

Interstate 94 Expansion Gets Cold Reception at City Hall

Over $1 billion for 54 blocks. Bauman asks where else the money could go?

By - Jan 7th, 2021 04:35 pm
Road Closed. Photo by Dave Reid.

Road Closed. Photo by Dave Reid.

State transportation officials got a cold reception when they briefed a Milwaukee Common Council committee on the status of the Interstate 94 expansion project Wednesday.

The city is already on the record opposing expanding the freeway between N. 16th St. and N. 70th St. And it appeared to have secured a win when Governor Scott Walker pulled the plug on the project in 2017.

Now the effort is back.

“Governor Evers, to what I think will be his dismay down the road, has restarted the East-West Corridor program,” said alderman and Public Works Committee chair Robert Bauman.

It’s not the exact same project, and given how the last project was terminated the state must now seek a new “record of decision” from the federal government or attempt to get the old one reactivated. The record allows the state to seek federal funding.

“We have really emphasized the need for a transit solution as a mitigation measure for the project,” said Wisconsin Department of Transportation project director Brian Bliesner.

“There is a lot of loose talk about transit improvements, which will not happen unless the Legislature makes it happen,” said Bauman of the Republican-controlled, transit-hostile Legislature. “Talk is cheap.”

“What’s our position, what are we asking for as a city?” asked Bauman to city Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske.

“We haven’t gotten to the point of asking for projects,” said Polenske.

The council might never get to make a direct ask. The only city officials with direct input on the project are unelected bureaucrats.

“We thought it was the most appropriate way to get city input is through the city’s technical staff,” said Bliesner of a technical committee. The committee has met twice.

“This is what I’m talking about. This is a smokescreen of the first order,” said Bauman.

“The process is our typical highway improvement process,” said Bliesner, noting that other representatives include Donna Brown-Martin from the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation, UW-Milwaukee, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and Dave Steele of MetroGo!.

Bliesner said there is also an advisory committee from the business community.

“I know what that is, that’s the [Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce] and your buddy Steve Baas,” said Bauman. Baas, now the lobbyist for MMAC, is a former Republican state aide. “Your favorite cheerleader for this project.”

“Is there a community committee of poor folks that don’t have cars? Do you have that committee formed yet?” asked Bauman.

“We do not, we are planning to form that kind of committee,” said Bliesner. He said neighborhood meetings would be held in the next few months.

“There is extensive outreach to the community that abuts this neighborhood and utilizes this freeway system,” said Bob Gutierrez, WisDOT South East Region deputy director.

WisDOT will conduct outreach, but may not have to hold a formal hearing on the project if the former record of decision is accepted. All of the engagement is to be held virtually.

Bauman said the virtual meetings are “highly ineffective” for community engagement. “That’s fine, that’s your choice, it will all be litigated in federal court,” he said. WisDOT lost a federal case over the Zoo Interchange to the west, causing the state to have to provide short-term funding for bus routes.

“If you have a better solution, we’re open to it,” said Bliesner.

“Yes, I have a solution. Wait until the pandemic is over,” said Bauman.

“Okay. Thank you for that input,” said Bliesner.

There is no budget for the project currently, but Bliesner said it is expected to cost over $1 billion based on the 2016 estimate.

“This is probably the most relevant fact to come out of this little hearing. We now have a project in excess of $1 billion for 54 blocks,” said Bauman.

“What opportunities could be presented for a $1 billion investment in this city? On street lights? On local roads? On potholes? On all the existing infrastructure we have challenges with instead of expanding a freeway?”

Bliesner said productive discussions have been had with Near West Side Partners and the Menomonee Valley Partners, particularly regarding the 25th Street ramps.

“I’m sure a lot of you know there is a lot of panhandling going on. A lot of drug use,” said the project director. He said the freeway as currently configured creates a dead zone.

Bliesner said a best case scenario would have construction starting in late 2023.

Questions from Ald. Russell W. Stamper, II about Highway 175, which runs north from the freeway into his district and isn’t included in the project, veered into the state officials talking about jobs in construction for Stamper’s constituents and disadvantaged business enterprises.

“Okay, I’m going to cut this short, now we are just getting into blatant propaganda,” said Bauman. The meeting adjourned, but the item was held for future discussion.

The highway expansion would add one lane in each direction to the six-lane highway that connects the Zoo Interchange with the Marquette Interchange. The state spent over $2.5 billion upgrading the two interchanges, the state’s busiest, over the past 15 years.

Jeramey Jannene serves on the board of MetroGo!

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Categories: Transportation

One thought on “Transportation: Interstate 94 Expansion Gets Cold Reception at City Hall”

  1. MilwMike1 says:

    We need roads throughout the state repaired before any new highways or expansions are considered.

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