Evers Is Wrong on I-94 Expansion
The proposal doesn't learn from history and contradicts the approach of Biden, Buttigieg.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
- Statement from Mayor Barrett on the New Impact Review for the I-94 Project - Mayor Tom Barrett - Apr 15th, 2021
- Advocates applaud opportunity for public input on I-94 East-West project, but new environmental review process still needed - Press Release - Apr 15th, 2021
- Transportation: State Delaying Interstate 94 Expansion For New Study - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 15th, 2021
- Transportation: Freeway Expansion Opponents To Meet With Biden Administration - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 8th, 2021
- Op Ed: Evers Is Wrong on I-94 Expansion - John Norquist - Mar 16th, 2021
- Op Ed: Rebuild I-94 in Milwaukee - John Raines, John Schmitt, Terry McGowan and Tony Mayrhofer - Feb 20th, 2021
- Coalition Opposes I-94 Expansion Project - Coalition for More Responsible Transportation - Feb 17th, 2021
- Construction Business Group Supports Governor Evers’ State Budget Proposal - Construction Business Group - Feb 17th, 2021
- Labor Leaders Voice Support For The I-94 East-West Corridor Project - Press Release - Feb 16th, 2021
- Transportation: Council Disagrees on I-94 Expansion - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 9th, 2021
Read more about I-94 East-West Expansion here