Op Ed

It’s Groundhog Day for I-94 Plan

$1.1 billion expansion plan keeps getting re-introduced based on increasingly outdated information.

By - Feb 2nd, 2021 11:15 am
I-94 Expansion. Rendering from WisDOT.

I-94 Expansion. Rendering from WisDOT.

The cinematic legend Bill Murray continues to bless us every year with one of his classic films, Groundhog Day. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film: Murray plays a cynical, self-centered TV weatherman that is tasked with covering the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Penn. His trip takes a turn when he becomes trapped inside a time loop and relives the same day again and again. On this year’s Groundhog Day, unfortunately, many Wisconsinites are relating to the movie in an unexpected way.

Like Bill Murray waking up every morning, Gov. Tony Evers gave Wisconsinites a case of déja-vu when he announced this past summer that he was resurrecting the project to expand Interstate 94 East/West in Milwaukee. It’s a project that was canceled in 2017, and received strong opposition from a variety of groups concerned about public health, the environment and racial segregation. However, the project’s real kicker was its enormous price tag. At $1.1 billion dollars, former Gov. Scott Walker questioned the need to continue expanding the state’s freeways given Wisconsinites’ changing transportation preferences, particularly among young people. “There are some groups out there that want to spend billions and billions and billions of dollars on more, bigger, wider interchanges across the state,” Walker said. “I actually think we should be fixing and maintaining our infrastructure. I don’t know that we need bigger and better and broader right now when we have a changing transportation system.” Now, with a public health crisis and economic recession, this plan is the Groundhog Day we can’t seem to wake up from.

This massive highway expansion project is riddled with drawbacks. The highway would increase the number of cars on the road, and that would increase air pollution at a time when we may just be putting a deadly respiratory public health crisis behind us. A Harvard study from 2020 found that air pollution was connected to higher rates of COVID-19 deaths. Milwaukee has some of the greatest racial disparities in the nation. Putting vulnerable communities at risk is unacceptable.

Not only that, but we should not be taking $1.1 billion dollars from an already strained budget to increase the city’s fossil fuel emissions that are accelerating climate change.

Federal Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg has vowed to dismantle a freeway system that has displaced Black and brown communities. Buttigieg aims to replace the freeway system with better transportation options. If the federal government is putting freeways on the chopping block, Wisconsin should change its transportation priorities as well. Continuing our decades old system of pouring all transportation money into highway projects isn’t the future for our country. We need to create a more equitable world where we fund healthier transportation options like walking and riding a bike.

Additionally, this new expansion project is being pushed through without updated analysis on environmental impacts and new commuter trends. Right now the environmental impact statement data that’s being used for this project come from the original analysis completed several years ago. Our communities and environments change every year. The environmental impact from 2017 won’t be the same as the environmental impact in 2021. Updated information needs to be used to make decisions around this project.

With stay-at-home orders and more people working from home than ever before, commuter trends need to be updated. In post-pandemic life, we have an opportunity to emerge from the pandemic with a clearer vision for what a better-working transportation system could look like. We know that fewer cars on the road means cleaner air, fewer emissions. If we give people better options, instead of just building the same old highway infrastructure that ties people to their cars, then we can have that better future we all want.

Like Murray waking up to Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” on his radio alarm clock, we don’t want to wake up every three years to the announcement that the I-94 expansion will be resurrected. This renewed attempt to expand the highway isn’t a good idea for Wisconsin. We can leave the problems surrounding this expansion plan behind and instead invest in things we need like public transportation, walking and biking infrastructure, and fixing our roads and bridges. To make Wisconsin’s transportation system better for everyone, changes need to be made to move us forward.

Susanna Cain, Transform Transportation Associate at the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group.

2 thoughts on “Op Ed: It’s Groundhog Day for I-94 Plan”

  1. rbeverly132 says:

    Will SOMEONE in Milwaukee County please apply the same analysis to expansion of I 43 from Silver Spring Drive to Hwy 60 in Grafton? $550m for a wider road, reconstruction of bridges that have been recently reconstructed, to the benefit of mainly Ozaukee County residents who pay zero taxes to support Milwaukee County infrastructure and amenities. Fix the pavement we now have.

  2. Wisconsin should be preparing for a 21st/22nd century economy, not 1955. Expansion of highways and no construction of high-quality alternative transportation through the area won’t support the best utilization of urban land, a modern economy, or address climate change. As an example, the National Landing in Virginia shows how a forward-thinking, transit-rich environment is being built for people and for business now. It is foolish for Wisconsin to be recycling ideas that are at least 75 years out-of-date.

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