Did I-94 End Milwaukee’s Population Growth?
City's population has declined since 1960s while Waukesha County kept growing.
Did Intersate 94 prevent Milwaukee from becoming a great city (at least as measured in population)? In 1960, the City of Milwaukee was the 11th largest city in the United States according to federal census data (all of the following data is from federal census data). By 2020, Milwaukee had fallen to the 31st largest city in the United States. The 1960s saw the advent of construction of the freeway system in Milwaukee with I-94 being completed in its current alignment in 1968.
To better understand why the City of Milwaukee fell from the 11th largest city to the 31st largest city it is necessary to examine Milwaukee’s population in more detail. Milwaukee increased in population every ten years from its founding in 1846 until 1960 when it reached its all-time high in population with 741,000 people. After 1960 and I-94 opening up in 1968, Milwaukee lost population every ten years until by 2020 Milwaukee’s population had fallen to 577,000, a decrease of 164,000 or 22% from its all-time high of 1960. Meanwhile, Waukesha County increased by 248,000 in population from 1960 to 2020.
The decision will be made by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in the next year or so whether to add a fourth lane to I-94 in each direction. There are numerous reasons to oppose adding a lane to I-94 other than population loss. Adding a fourth lane to I-94 would increase air pollution. Adding a lane to I-94 is a racial equity issue in that it favors suburban commuters over people of color, many of whom don’t own cars. Adding a lane to I-94 does nothing to expand transit. The additional money that would have to be spent to add a lane to I-94 could be better spent repairing local streets.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted in 1970 that “This (the building of the Interstate System) was a program which the twenty-first century will almost certainly judge to have had more influence on the shape and development of American cities, the distribution of population within metropolitan areas and across the nation as a whole, the location of industry and various kinds of employment opportunities … It has been, it is, the largest public works program in history. Activities such as urban renewal, public housing, community development, and the like are reduced to mere digressions when compared to the extraordinary impact of the highway program.”
The question was asked if I-94 prevented Milwaukee from becoming a great city. This question has to be answered with a yes. Adding a fourth lane to I-94 would only make worse the population loss experienced by the City of Milwaukee over the last 60 years and should be opposed, especially by residents of Milwaukee, for that reason alone.
David Jasenski is a former Milwaukee County Supervisor and member of the MICAH Transportation Committee.
If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.
- Op Ed: Did I-94 End Milwaukee’s Population Growth? - David Jasenski - Sep 22nd, 2021
- Transportation: Plan Offers Alternative To Expanded I-94 - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 14th, 2021
- 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
Read more about I-94 East-West Expansion here