Op Ed

Rebuild I-94 With Six Lanes

Don’t expand to eight lanes. Do include other transportation, like bicycles and buses.

Road Closed. Photo by Dave Reid.

Road Closed. Photo by Dave Reid.

Governor Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) have proposed to expand I-94 from 6 to 8 lanes between 16th Street and 70th Street in the City of Milwaukee as part of the I-94 East West Project. This is a once-in-a-generation project, and we argue that the proposed expansion is a mistake for the Milwaukee region. The proposed expansion also has national implications. Like other interstate highway projects, this project primarily uses federal funds, making it an important test of the Biden Administration’s commitment to make infrastructure investments that create jobs, mitigate climate change, and improve environmental justice.

Fortunately, the proposed expansion is not inevitable. The expansion proposal is five years old, and WisDOT will engage the community about the project at a public meeting on Tuesday, March 16th from 6-8 pm. We should reject the outdated proposal from 2016 and ask WisDOT and the Federal Highway Administration to deliver a forward-looking project.

I-94 should be reconstructed, but the benefits of this project can be realized while maintaining its existing number of lanes. A 6-lane project would still generate valuable construction jobs, reduce future maintenance costs, and create safer access ramps and better connections to the Menomonee Valley by foot, bicycle, bus, and car. These improvements would still support economic development, especially in the Valley and adjacent neighborhoods to the north and south.

However, expanding the interstate to 8 lanes would add approximately $150M to the project, deepen the Milwaukee region’s reliance on cars, increase carbon emissions, disturb adjacent neighborhoods, and exacerbate inequality between wealthy and poor (points that have been made here, here, here, and here).

Expansion contradicts the Governor’s own Task Force on Climate Change Report. That report states, “Research has shown that environmentally harmful infrastructure such as highways and ports have been intentionally and disproportionately placed in low-income communities and communities of color. This results in high exposure to air, water, and noise pollution in these communities, which in turn results in racial health disparities and economic divestment…” Expanding I-94 would make these problems worse and undercut the report’s other forward-looking transportation strategies. Potential short-term environmental benefits of rush-hour congestion reduction (smoothing stop-and-go traffic a few times of day) do not outweigh the long-term negative emissions that come from more driving (additional lanes subsidize development on the fringe of the region and prioritize driving over other more sustainable transportation options).

Additional lanes are unnecessary. Projections of future bottlenecks are based on pre-pandemic assumptions that should be revisited. Even before the pandemic, actual 2019 traffic counts on I-94 were no higher than 15 to 20 years ago (see two decades of counts near 92nd Street, Hawley Road, 40th Street, and 26th Street—these counts and counts on the parallel highways of US 18 and WI 59 fluctuate due to construction projects and the economy, but there is virtually no long-term increase). Plus, by several measures, the Milwaukee region already has some of the lowest levels of congestion among large US metro areas. If traffic ultimately does increase we can pursue a range of known solutions to improve highway efficiency without expansion: speed harmonization through dynamic speed limits; integrated corridor management (real-time information to optimize routes and types of transportation on and near I-94); better transit, bicycling, and walking options; and infill development within historic centers and affordable housing throughout the region to reduce commuting distances. Further, the transportation sector is likely to experience fundamental changes, reducing the need for more lanes in two major ways: automated technologies that reduce distances between vehicles and—especially in a post-pandemic world—remote working and flexible commuting hours (fewer commute trips and highway demand spread more efficiently throughout the day).

Expansion would exacerbate social injustices. More than one in five households living within 2 miles north and south of I-94 do not own a car. Half of these residents are people of color, groups that were displaced and disadvantaged by the original highway construction in our region. These injustices still sting our communities of color today: wholesale demolition of Black-owned homes and businesses in Bronzeville for I-43; dozens of blocks of homes cleared in Lindsay Heights and Sherman Park for the Park West Freeway; division of the Washington Park and Washington Heights neighborhoods for WI 175; increased automobile pollution on the Near West Side and in Walkers Point from I-94. We should use our tax dollars to right the wrongs of the past, not double-down on them.

Diversify transportation options rather than expand highways. Milwaukee already has a well-developed highway system, but our lack of a regional rapid transit system leaves us behind peers like Denver, Baltimore, Seattle, and Minneapolis and limits our ability to attract and retain workers. Plus, transit and other transportation projects create even more jobs per dollar than highway expansion. Rather than spending $150M on extra interstate lanes, we should pursue projects like:

  • Build a bus rapid transit (BRT) line in the 27th Street/Layton Boulevard Corridor to the north and south of I-94. This high-frequency transit route would have stations approximately every half-mile that would create opportunities for development of new businesses and transit-accessible housing. Assuming similar costs as the new East-West BRT, a 9-mile section of 27th Street/Layton Boulevard Corridor BRT would cost approximately $50M—one-third the cost of adding lanes to I-94.
  • Redesign commercial corridors like W. Fond Du Lac Avenue (WI 145), W. National Avenue (WI 59), W North Avenue, and S. Cesar Chavez Drive in Milwaukee; W. Bluemound Road (US 18) in Wauwatosa; or W. Greenfield Avenue (WI 59) and S. 84th Street (WI 181) in West Allis. Improved designs could reduce excessive traffic speeds, shorten crossings for customers, enhance transit service for all travelers, widen sidewalks to enliven outdoor dining and shopping, provide space to separate bicyclists from both cars and pedestrians, and add new landscaping and street trees. Repairing rather than widening I-94 would save enough money to transform streets and support local businesses at the heart of more than one dozen neighborhoods.
  • Construct a new multi-use trail in the 30th Street Corridor. This would connect the Hank Aaron State Trail near I-94 to Lincoln Creek and Havenwoods State Forest, filling a critical gap in our regional trail system on Milwaukee’s north side. Space in the corridor could be reserved for future commuter rail service. Right-of-way purchase and trail construction would likely cost less than half of adding new lanes to I-94.
  • Envision other possibilities: develop regional commuter rail, extend streetcar routes into neighborhoods, remove freeway spurs like WI 175 to provide more green space and re-establish connections between neighborhoods, invest in new technologies (e.g., micro-transit, ride-hailing) to provide more options for people without cars, make safety improvements to multilane streets that currently enable reckless driving across our community, and more.

Shifting our priority away from interstate expansion would help refocus resources on maintaining existing roadway infrastructure and spur creative thinking about other transportation options. Projects like those listed above would create better places to live, improve street safety, be better for the environment, reduce automobile dependence, and generate economic opportunity in existing communities where it is needed most. Instead of sinking more money into an outdated proposal for unnecessary highway expansion, we should invest in a more sustainable and equitable transportation system that is suited for the 2020s and beyond.

The authors include:
Robert Schneider, PhD, Associate Professor of Urban Planning, UW-Milwaukee
Montavius Jones, Resident, City of Milwaukee
Lingqian Hu, PhD, Professor of Urban Planning, UW-Milwaukee
Jie Yu, PhD, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering, UW-Milwaukee
Caressa Givens, Milwaukee Projects Manager, Wisconsin Bike Federation
James Davies, Executive Director, Bublr Bikes
Celia Jackson, Resident, Milwaukee County

The Op Ed is also endorsed by the following organizations: 

  • Wisconsin Bike Federation
  • City of Milwaukee Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force
  • Milwaukee Safe and Healthy Streets

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2 thoughts on “Op Ed: Rebuild I-94 With Six Lanes”

  1. Mitchell Henke says:

    This is great!

  2. blurondo says:

    While in agreement with each of these points, “remove freeway spurs like WI 175 to provide more green space and re-establish connections between neighborhoods” deserves unequivocal support. Carrying out that task does not really depend on what ultimately happens with I 94.

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