John Norquist
Op Ed

Evers Is Wrong on I-94 Expansion

The proposal doesn't learn from history and contradicts the approach of Biden, Buttigieg.

By - Mar 16th, 2021 05:55 pm
John Norquist

John Norquist

On January 26, President Joe Biden released a position paper on the negative impact of freeways on urban neighborhoods. It’s worth quoting:

“The creation of the Interstate Highway System, funded and constructed by the federal government and state governments in the 20th century, disproportionately burdened many historically Black and low-income neighborhoods in many American cities. Many urban interstate highways were deliberately built to pass through Black neighborhoods, often requiring the destruction of housing and other local institutions. To this day, many Black neighborhoods are disconnected from access to high-quality housing, jobs, public transit, and other resources.

“The federal government must recognize and acknowledge its role in systematically declining to invest in communities of color and preventing residents of those communities from accessing the same services and resources as their white counterparts. The effects of these policy decisions continue to be felt today, as racial inequality still permeates land-use patterns in most U.S. cities and virtually all aspects of housing markets.”

Biden’s Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg echoed this view an interview with CNN: “It’s disproportionately Black and brown neighborhoods that were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn’t have the political capital to resist,” Buttigieg told Jake Tapper. “We have a chance to get that right.”

And to Rolling Stone magazine Buttigieg added this: “One thing I’ve noticed here in Washington is that people say ‘state and local’ like it’s one word. To me, even though all the attention around here is on the relationship between the federal government and the states, I think the most interesting relationships in federalism are between cities and towns and everybody else. If you’ve got a community that’s out trying to do the right thing, maybe they don’t feel like they have a friend in their own state capitol. They’re going to have a friend in Washington.”

So how does expanding I-94 from 16th St to 70th in Milwaukee fit into Biden and Buttigieg’s vision for transportation? It doesn’t.

In 1941, Norman bel Geddes, the designer often credited with conceiving of America’s Interstates, warned that the revolutionary highway system he envisioned could harm cities. After contemplating his freeway centric 1939 Worlds Fair exhibit he wrote a book, Magic Motorways, in which he expressed his doubts. “If the purpose of the motorway as now conceived is that of being a high-speed, non-stop thoroughfare, the motorway would only bungle the job if it got caught up with the city. A great motorway has no business cutting a wide swath right through a town or city and destroying the values there; its place is in the country.”

Like urban activist Jane Jacobs, bel Geddes understood that the value of a city derives from its complexity, proximity and diversity of economic and social activity. Its grid of streets, avenues, boulevards, transit and sidewalks organized around blocks creates a setting for social interaction, business growth and real estate development. The grid facilitates access and distribution. The hierarchy of road types (boulevards, avenues, streets and alleys) is fairly flat.  Whereas with expressways the hierarchy is steep (cul de sac, 120 foot wide feeder arterials and above all in importance, grade separated highways). Highways are intended to move traffic at high speeds. This goal is easily achieved in low density rural settings. But in cities and populous suburbs an expressway attracts  traffic which congests at peak travel times and then pushes congestion into the city grid from its interchanges. By contrast the street grid distributes vehicle traffic, bikes, transit riders and pedestrians throughout its complex network. Perhaps the greatest difference is that expressways take up land creating dead space under and around them. The city grid provides a setting for commerce and development that produces value, particularly tax base from which municipalities derive revenue to pay for librarians, police and firefighters. This is especially important in Wisconsin where towns, villages and cities depend on property taxes as their main source of revenue.

WisDOT is now attempting to resurrect a plan to widen three miles of I-94 from six lanes to eight lanes from just west of Downtown to near Milwaukee’s western boundary. It was canceled by former Governor Scott Walker after he noticed that debt service had reached 18% of DOT’s operating budget. He condemned the level of borrowing and spending as no longer sustainable. Walker’s decision surprised people because he was, up until 2016, a big expressway champion and is infamous for killing the High Speed Rail project between Milwaukee and Madison although nearly all of the cost would have been funded federally.

The proposed I-94 widening runs through two low-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods: Avenues West and Merrill Park. Avenues West was the victim of disinvestment in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, some of it promoted by Milwaukee’s own government and business elite. In the 1950s the rapid transit line was shuttered. Its right of way later became the route of I-94. The Wisconsin Avenue streetcar line was shut down in 1958. In the early 1970s there were eight hospitals clustered around the Marquette Medical School. Thousands of jobs were associated with the various healthcare institutions. In 1976 the Medical School followed I-94 to a site next to Mayfair Shopping Mall in suburban Wauwatosa. John Doyne, Milwaukee’s County Executive from 1960 to 1976, pushed hard to move the teaching hospitals out, as did the business leadership of Milwaukee. The Greater Milwaukee Committee, a prominent business group, made the re-consolidation of the hospitals with the Medical School its number one priority in the mid 1980s. So over the next decade all but one of the hospitals followed. I was in the State Senate and represented Merrill Park just west of Avenues West. I was shocked to find my own city helping to move jobs out of Milwaukee.  When I appealed to Democratic Governor Tony Earl’s Secretary of Health Linda Reivitz I found the Earl administration was pushing the move as well.

And over the next decade all but one of the hospitals followed.

Further west I-94 runs through three middle class ethnically diverse neighborhoods: Story Hill, Johnson’s Woods and Bluemound Heights. Adding the lanes will increase Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) not just in the corridor, but metro wide as it will induce longer and more frequent motor vehicle trips with attendant air pollution and increasing asthma and other respiratory diseases. It will increase greenhouse gas emissions and degrade the neighborhoods along its path. WisDOT’s cost estimate in 2016 was $1.1 Billion for a 3.1 mile project. This is money that could otherwise be spent on transit, street repair, bridge repair, bicycle facilities or to pay down the debt WisDOT has piled up in recent years. Spending over a billion dollars on another expressway widening project will force postponement or cancellation of other smaller projects throughout the state. According to a report by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), there are 1,026 structurally deficient Wisconsin bridges. Structurally deficient means the bridge needs repair or it might fall down; functionally deficient usually means the DOT wants to make the facility bigger. The problems WisDOT has identified on the three mile segment of I-94 fit in the functional category. They want to widen I-94 to eight lanes and replace the left side exit ramps with right side ramps on the 175 interchange at the Brewers baseball park. The I-94 road bed is at a point where its age requires regrading and resurfacing which could be considered in the structural deficiency category. Addressing this structural deficiency while cancelling the expansions would cut the $billion+ cost substantially and leave money for other transportation needs.

The Wisconsin DOT has spent the last 60 years looking for ways to drill holes into Milwaukee’s urban fabric and then widen the holes. For example in 1966 State Representative Lloyd Barbee stood in front of a bulldozer trying to stop the destruction of Bronzeville; Milwaukee’s smaller version of Harlem. Barbee called the North Freeway (now I-43) the “Dirty Ditch.” The center of Bronzeville was at Walnut St between 6th and 11th Streets. It was a lively place with the Regal Theatre, the Moon Glow and Flame nightclubs where local musicians like saxophonist Berkeley Fudge and guitarist Manty Ellis played. National stars like Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins and Louis Armstrong would sometimes show up in Bronzeville after performing downtown. The state routed the freeway trench right through the heart of Bronzeville. Nine years later, in 1975, as a newly elected state representative, I was assigned a seat next to Barbee and on that first day of the legislature’s session he told me about the “Dirty Ditch” that destroyed Bronzeville. He hadn’t forgotten and neither have a group of African American Milwaukeeans who still hold a picnic at Carver Park each summer to remember Bronzeville.

American traffic engineers have been trained that vehicle throughput is the paramount goal of road and street design. They use an A to F system to rate roads and streets. “A” being considered free flowing and therefore excellent while “F” signifies heavy congestion and thus failure. This system ignores the fact that congestion is often a symptom of success. Interesting and successful places attract people and so things get crowded. Milwaukee’s 3rd Ward is often congested with people dining or attending the Skylight Theatre or buying chocolate at Kehr’s at the Public Market.  People (especially Harley riders) come from all over the Midwest to visit Milwaukee’s Brady Street neighborhood. At busy times its narrow streets fill up and function at Level F, but does that mean the street should be widened? No because widening it would spoil its charm and attractiveness. Merchants like Glorioso’s Italian Market, Peter Sciortino Bakery and Art Smart’s Dart Mart & Juggling Emporium are doing fine as it is. Joe Glorioso used to say, “what’s the hurry-slow down and enjoy the neighborhood.” Places can be crowded with good congestion: good for merchants and restauranteurs and especially people having a good time. Just like there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, in the city there is good and bad congestion. The bad congestion is best found on the expressway.

I and many others resisted DOT’s freeway expansion plans. As a member of the Legislature from 1975 to 1988 I helped kill three of the freeways including the Stadium South which was routed to take a huge chunk out of Jackson Park in my Assembly district. However, we couldn’t stop them all. As mayor from 1988 to 2004 I led the successful effort to remove the Park East freeway and replace it with a boulevard integrated into the downtown street network. It took a while, but the former freeway corridor and its immediately adjacent blocks have attracted more then $1 billion in development.

In the post World War II period, St Louis and Detroit built every freeway contemplated by their respective state DOTs.  Since then their populations declined drastically. St Louis went from a population of 856,796 down to its current 294,576. In Detroit, the population dropped from 1,849,568 to 670,031. In 1960, just before the first interstates were built, Milwaukee’s population peaked at 741,324. It now stands at 587,721.  Although there were other contributing factors that help explain population decline, if we hadn’t stopped some of the freeways Milwaukee’s loss could have been more like the collapses in St Louis and Detroit. Even so the city has gotten smaller; so why make the expressways bigger?

In spite of these efforts, WisDOT and the Highway Lobby have never let up. They keep pushing to widen the freeways already built. They’ve included the I-94 widening in the state budget despite the elected officials that represent the people in the corridor opposing it. US Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) opposes it. Both aldermen Bob Bauman and Michael Murphy oppose it. State Reps Daniel Riemer and Evan Goyke oppose it. Regardless of the opposition of these locally elected officials, WisDOT is trying to get the Federal Highway Administration to break past precedent and go along with using a 5 year old Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to speed up a project that Milwaukee isn’t asking for. In a recent phone conversation Mayor Tom Barrett indicated that Governor Tony Evers gave him no heads up before including the I-94 project in his state budget.

President Donald Trump and his Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao diminished programs that supported transit, biking and walking. They diverted money from transit to road building and starved Amtrak. Wisconsin’s DOT needs to notice there is a new president who cares about cities and the people who live in them. Biden should not let WisDOT rush this project by relying on the out of date EIS. Instead he and Buttigieg should insist on an updated one with a thorough alternatives analysis, including a multi modal option that repairs the existing road without widening it, using funds to provide for bicycle travel, improved transit and fixing some of those dangerous bridges. This will give locally elected officials the opportunity to negotiate for a program which improves Milwaukee instead of degrading it.

Let’s hope this isn’t a replay of the first two verses of the Book of Lamentations:

How  lonely sits the City that was full of people.
How like a widow she has become.
She that was great among nations.
Princess among provinces has become tributary.
She weeps bitterly in the night.
Tears on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers she has none to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her…

Governor Evers should listen to Biden and listen to Buttigieg and do the right thing.

John Norquist served as a member of the Wisconsin Legislature from 1975 to 1988 and as Mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 to 2004. 

5 thoughts on “Op Ed: Evers Is Wrong on I-94 Expansion”

  1. just1paul says:

    Excellent Mr. Mayor

  2. siegeronsongs says:

    Freeways are for out-of-towners who like to speed through the city with zero engagement. Why cater to them? As for the people who use them to get to work, there are more charming solutions, just ask San Francisco and New Orleans.

  3. mkwagner says:

    Thank you for this well-reasoned piece. However, the Medical College and Children’s Hospital moved to the County Grounds, which is several miles south of Mayfair Mall. The County Grounds had been home to Muirdale, the TB Hospital and the Children’s Orphanage. Both institutions had been closed at the time of the move. On the other hand, County Hospital was also located at that site. County Hospital was replaced by the privately funded (with the support of the Milwaukee business community) Froedtert Hospital, which is now one of the major teaching hospitals for the Medical College. Another hospital lost during this time was Doctor’s Hospital on 27th and Wells. Doctors Hospital came about because doctors of color (predominantly Black) were denied privileges at other Milwaukee Hospitals. So they built their own hospital. It always ran on a shoestring, but always welcomed residents from the surrounding neighborhoods.

  4. rbeverly132 says:

    Agree with all of this. Now, would someone PLEASE apply the same reasoning to expansion of I43 from Silver Spring to Grafton? Granted, neighborhood issues are not the same, but certainly the cost to make it easier for suburban and ex-urban people to use Milwaukee resources while paying taxes elsewhere should come into question. Repair the road we have now and forget the unnecessary lane..

  5. Dennis Grzezinski says:

    An excellent history of how WisDOT has worked hard over the decades to destroy Milwaukee, intentionally or otherwise. Are we at the turning of the tide?

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us