Jeramey Jannene

Plan Offers Alternative To Expanded I-94

Groups back repairing freeway, second BRT line, possible commuter rail, other projects.

By - Sep 14th, 2021 05:40 pm
I-94 Expansion. Rendering from WisDOT.

I-94 Expansion. Rendering from WisDOT.

A group of community advocates believes they have a safer, more sustainable strategy than expanding Interstate 94 from six to eight lanes between N. 16th St. and N. 70th St. in Milwaukee.

The plan, authored by transportation planner Mark Stout, has four key components. It comes after the Wisconsin Department of Transportation announced in April it would delay the more than $1 billion project for further study.

The plan calls for rebuilding and repairing the existing freeway, adding a new east-west bus rapid transit (BRT) line on the South Side, expanding the amount of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in the area and exploring future mass transit capacity expansion projects like commuter rail and a north-south bus rapid transit line.

The group, known as Citizens for More Responsible Transportation (CMRT), believes its proposal promotes racial equity, confronts climate change and is demonstrably feasible. Members include 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Sierra Club (Wisconsin chapter), Wisconsin Environment and Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG).

“We should be pursuing a future that actually meets the needs of the people near the project corridor,” said Gregg May, transportation policy director at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, in a statement.

Stout, a consultant and former New Jersey Department of Transportation assistant commissioner, authored a 43-page report outlining the plan.

The freeway would be rebuilt, but not expanded. The proposal includes fixing “safety hotspots” through context-sensitive solutions and downsizing interchanges, including the Stadium Interchange. Consideration would also be given to strategies like swapping the names of Interstate 94 and Interstate 894 with the goal of routing interstate traffic around Milwaukee instead of through it.

The new southside BRT line along W. National Ave. and W. Greenfield Ave. would complement the under construction East-West BRT line that was originally advanced in part as a freeway-construction mitigation effort. The high-frequency, faster service for the South Side would start Downtown and end in western West Allis at S. 108th Street. It would be created in a corridor long-served by the busiest route in the Milwaukee County Transit System, the BlueLine. An already planned north-south BRT line along N. 27th St. would connect more of the county.

The third prong, promoting walkable and bikeable neighborhoods in the corridor, would get a boost from a proposal to replace the north-south stadium freeway spur, Wisconsin Highway 175, with a boulevard with more connections to the surrounding neighborhoods. The change is intended to alleviate a bottleneck at the Stadium Interchange with Interstate 94, improve the environment in the surrounding neighborhoods and promote neighborhood business development. The section of the plan also calls for building out more bicycle connections to the trail network in the Menomonee Valley.

The final aspect of the plan calls for long-term planning for sustainable transportation solutions. A mix of local investments, like redeveloping the soon-to-be-abandoned Komatsu Mining campus at W. National Ave. and S. Miller Park Way, are proposed as well as regional strategies, like an east-west commuter rail line.

“As the report outlines, the health and wellbeing of communities surrounding I-94 should be at the center of the state’s plans for this area,” said Tony Wilkin Gilbert, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates. “That means not expanding the footprint of the highway, which would encourage more polluting traffic and, therefore, degrade air quality, exacerbate climate change, and trap more heat in the central part of the city. Prioritizing the health and wellbeing of surrounding communities also means prioritizing public transportation. Rapid transit options would allow community members to easily travel to work and school without dependence on cars and begin to repair the damage to the social and economic fabric of the neighborhoods caused by the existing highway.”

The freeway expansion project had been dormant for years, but Governor Tony Evers reactivated the project last year. His administration was pushing to reuse a 946-page environmental impact statement (EIS) that was completed in 2016. Then-Gov. Scott Walker pulled the plug on the highway project in 2017 after the state Legislature didn’t fund it. The Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the initial EIS in 2017.

The environmental impact statement is a required document to access federal funding. The last formal public hearings for the current EIS were conducted in 2014.

The project opponents met with FHWA administrator Stephanie Pollack in April, a week before the state announced it would undertake a supplemental EIS process. Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, who is running for U.S. Senate, not re-election, has also split with Evers over endorsing the project.

“This will allow us time to better assess the changes in traffic patterns resulting from the pandemic, and to receive more public input. It will also help us make certain that our efforts to ensure racial equity with this project are comprehensive and aligned with federal priorities,” said WisDOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson in announcing the expanded planning process in April. “Doing nothing about this portion of road is not an option. This aging stretch of highway is one of the most dangerous roads in the state.”

A full copy of the plan and report can be found at

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Categories: Transportation, Weekly

9 thoughts on “Transportation: Plan Offers Alternative To Expanded I-94”

  1. Dennis Grzezinski says:

    Excellent article, Jeramey!

  2. TransitRider says:

    We shouldn’t switch the I-94 and I-894 designations, we should instead totally drop the I-894 designation altogether. The highway known today as I-894 should be called I-94. Today’s I-94 would be I-43 (between downtown and the airport) and I-794 between downtown and the zoo. (The I-794 designation should extend all the way from Bay View to the Zoo Interchange.) (The portion of today’s I-94 between the airport and downtown would retain its I-43 name.)

    Doing this would simplify signage, make the system more understandable for visitors, and slightly reduce traffic through downtown.

  3. CraigR says:

    Honestly, does anyone think that renaming stretches of highway will really make a dent in the amount of traffic on the East West Freeway? Seems pretty naive to me. And as I looked around at the other drivers stuck in the traffic jam this afternoon, I wondered if any of them would hop on bus rapid transit. Yeah, it’s fine if someone else rides it.
    While I understand that adding capacity to roadways is a problematic solution, this stretch is often jammed and that adds significant air quality and noise issues to city residents. Not too mention the daily aggravation of merging where the road narrows.
    The unimproved section is not that long and I think it is a project worth doing. Some of the solutions suggested will probably be done anyway (such a modifying the existing Stadium Interchange). I also don’t understand the reluctance to move some gravesites to make a reasonable design that would have less impact on the Story Hill neighborhood. Or could the road be undercut below those graves if it is such a big deal.

  4. TransitRider says:

    CraigR, two points regarding your post…

    1) Not everybody on I-94 is local. Some are just passing through and some of those just don’t realize that 894 offers a shorter, often faster alternative. They just know if they follow I-94 they won’t get lost (and the last thing they want to do is get lost in a strange, big city). Diverting these onto 894 would help.

    2) The gravesite issue just west of the Stadium is the two types of cemeteries involved. South of I-94 is the veterans’ cemetery, where soldiers are buried. Veterans’ groups might object to disturbing their final resting places. Especially if a Democrat proposes desecrating soldiers’ graves, I can see some right-wing type looking to score points going crazy about liberals “disrespecting our heroes”.

    But right across the highway is a Jewish cemetery and my understanding of Jewish law is that Jewish graves can NEVER EVER be disturbed (with one possible exception—to relocate the remains to Israel). Any politician advocating disturbing these graves might be called antisemitic.

    So you have politicians scared witless about whether to offend veterans’ groups or Jews. As a result neither cemetery is touched and I-94 is constrained. That’s why there’s been proposals to double-deck I-94 through this bottle-neck at GREAT expense.

  5. steenwyr says:

    I wouldn’t die on the hill of keeping six lanes, instead just push for the de-rating and downgrade of WI 175 so Stadium Interchange can be just a simple one plus long ramps so actual stadium traffic doesn’t cripple the mainline

  6. Polaris says:

    Expanding 94 would be a terrible waste of money given Milwaukee’s relatively minuscule “rush hour.” It’s a dream compared to most other “major” cities. Proposals to expand have largely come from outside Milwaukee—city haters and the transit adverse for whom the car is about all there is.

  7. Wardt01 says:

    Renumbering the highways is a curious idea. There is no actual data in the 43 page report to support the idea, but now I’m interested in hearing the merits/analysis of it. Has the renumbering idea been part of the feasibility or design proposals? 3 numbers indicate a bypass in the interstate numbering system in the US. Are trucks even large users of this stretch? seems like cars, commuters, Brewers games comprise the bulk of the congestion.

    Interstate highways were never intended to be commuter lines.

  8. TransitRider says:

    Three-digit interstate highway designations (like 794 & 894) indicate EITHER a spur into a city (when the first digit is ODD like 794 or Duluth/Superior’s I-535) or a bypass (if the first digit is EVEN like 894 or 494/694 in the Twin Cities). A “bypass” like this usually takes you back to your “main” highway (I-94 in the above examples), often using a somewhat longer, round-about route. This numbering system has broken down somewhat over the years (eg I-355 outside Chicago acts as a bypass but is numbered like a spur).

    Renumbering Milwaukee’s expressways would reduce congestion by directing through traffic away from downtown. Visitors driving through a city often avoid bypasses because they can be longer than staying on the main highway, and are typically, at best, no shorter. Examples of this are I-494 in Minneapolis and I-294 in Chicago which are both involve more miles than driving straight through on I-94. But, in Milwaukee, I-894 is actually shorter than going through downtown since I-94 jogs east just north of the Airport Interchange. Renumbering these highways would make this clearer to visitors who are just passing through.

    Ideally expressways wouldn’t enter cities at all. The major highways that predate the interstate highway system (like the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey Turnpikes) bypass major cities (Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia); they get quite close but carry almost no local traffic; even at rush hour they flow smoothly with 3 or fewer lanes each way. The exits are laid out so it is easy to get into or out of those cities but are not useful for travel WITHIN them. Perhaps the tolls also scare off local drivers.

    When President Eisenhower proposed massive federal subsidies for the Interstates, he was initially opposed by urban congressmen who asked “what’s in it for my district?” To get enough votes in the House, the system expanded to include expressways within cities.

    In hindsight, urban expressways have never really worked—they’ve always been overcrowded (unlike the turnpikes), they hollowed out cities (the MAJORITY of land within many big cities is now roads and parking lots—more space for cars than people), and destroyed transit (which used to be profitable and unsubsidized). The main benefit they were supposed to provide—shorter commute times—hasn’t panned out since people now just live further out and, I believe, average commute times are really no different today than 1950. And urban expressways encouraged more driving (more air pollution) which led to bigger impervious parking lots (more flooding and sewage dumps).

  9. kaygeeret says:

    There are a number of surface streets that will quickly (in rush hour terms) transport folks to Waukesha. Plenty of ways to use those.

    Lets not wreck more of Milwaukee to accommodate folks ‘passing thru’.

    Our “rush hour” is so tame it is almost laughable.

    I worked on 17th and Wisconsin for a long time and after a short period, realized surface streets were easier and faster. Granted I lived in MKE at the time. but very, very many folks working downtown who lived in ‘Tosa or the west side or the near north side, took the freeway while I sailed along.

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