Jeramey Jannene

Mayor Backs Boulevard To Replace I-794 Downtown

'We should be thinking about the city we want in the future, 30 years from now.'

By - Apr 16th, 2024 06:17 pm
Interstate 794 through Downtown. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Interstate 794 through Downtown. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson has made his position clear on the proposal to rebuild Interstate 794 through Downtown. He would like to see some portion of the east-west elevated freeway converted to a boulevard, creating a more vibrant city.

“I support a reconfiguration of Interstate 794 in downtown Milwaukee,” said Johnson during his inauguration speech Tuesday morning at City Hall. “It offers a chance to maximize growth and maximize investment while keeping transportation connectivity here in the city.”

The Rethink 794 coalition has advocated for converting the stretch between N. 6th Street to the lakefront into a boulevard as a means to better connect Downtown with the Historic Third Ward and promote economic development. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) is formally studying multiple boulevard options alongside other options to rebuild the 1970s freeway segment.

“The key is not simply thinking about our commutes today,” said Johnson. “I think people are narrowly thinking about how a change there affects them personally today. We should be thinking about the city we want in the future, 30 years from now. What’s the Downtown that our kids and grandkids will inherit? That’s the sort of mind frame I have when I think about what will happen with 794.”

He previously signaled his openness to the idea in late 2022, but his comments Tuesday were far more definitive. And they come as WisDOT is expected to release two final study options in the coming months.

None of the WisDOT plans contemplate the removal of the Hoan Bridge between Downtown and the South Side; just 10 downtown blocks (or less) of the 4.76-mile I-794 highway that runs from I-94 to the Hoan Bridge and south to Layton Ave. would be turned into a boulevard.

The city’s 2040 Downtown Plan, approved last year, states that the official city position is for removal, but also allows for support of realigning the freeway. “If full removal is not feasible via this current project, any interim alternative should prioritize modernization of the infrastructure to reduce the footprint, activation of the public spaces and streets under the bridges, improvements to the ramp connections and increased safety for pedestrian crossings,” says the plan.

Removing the freeway to connect and expand the bordering neighborhoods would fit with Johnson’s Growing MKE plan to increase the amount of housing in the city and his vision for economic development.

The eight options studied by WisDOT all involve realigning the freeway and removing ramps. Two of the options involve removing the east-west freeway in favor of a boulevard. Short of rebuilding the freeway as-is, all of the options would increase the amount of developable land and involve configuration changes to the street grid.

The issue hasn’t broken down into a simple city-suburbs divide. Officials with the Historic Third Ward Association have raised concerns about increased traffic volumes on local streets. Officials with the city-owned port have also raised questions about trucking impacts and the need to develop suitable alternative routes. Concerns have also been raised about where the boulevard would start on the west, with the possible necessity to build a new lift bridge over the Milwaukee or relocate the streetcar maintenance facility.

WisDOT estimates that 26,600 vehicles make an end-to-end trip across the entire study area each day. More than double that total enters or exits the study area via a ramp and does not make an end-to-end trip, presumably to start or end a trip Downtown. Proponents of a boulevard have said a grid would better diffuse traffic across city streets and that removing the elevated structure would better connect Downtown while creating more land for public or private use.

Prior Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist once sought to see both Interstate 794 and the Park East Freeway spur brought down to street level, but compromised at removing the Park East Freeway. A study done after its removal showed that travel times to many Downtown destinations were reduced as a result of increased street grid connections. The Milwaukee BucksDeer District development now encompasses much of the western half of the former Park East Freeway’s footprint. The North End and other apartment complexes cover the eastern segment. President Joe Biden recently visited Milwaukee to announce a $36 million grant to rebuild N. 6th Street to better connect the west side of Downtown (Westown) with the neighborhoods to the north.

Both east-west freeway segments were constructed as part of an unfinished plan to encircle Downtown with highways.

County Executive David Crowley has yet to state his view on the matter publicly.

For more on Johnson’s inauguration speech, including a pledge to get involved in education, see our earlier coverage.

Freeway Options

Removal Options

As-Is Rebuild

3D Renderings

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13 thoughts on “Mayor Backs Boulevard To Replace I-794 Downtown”

  1. Kate says:

    Thank you to our Mayor for clearly stating his position on the freeway removal. Here is a man of the future. Mayor Johnson has a great deal of support in our community. I hope his vision will continue to buck traditional, timid thinking. It takes courage. Zeidler and Norquist had that courage, too. Great news.

  2. B says:

    I am all for this! I understand this isn’t removing the Hoan. Would the Hoan lose federal funding if 794 is no longer a controlled access freeway?

  3. 45 years in the City says:

    It’s a shame that John Norquist couldn’t get this done at the time. The state then proceeded to rebuild 794 from the Marquette Interchange to roughly Jefferson Street. The only bit remaining from the 1970s is from that point to the Hoan Bridge approaches. Think of the money that would have been saved had this been done when proposed by Mayor Norquist.

  4. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @B – Operating under the likely assumption it was designated State Highway 794, it would not.

  5. mr_cox says:

    Let me add my thanks to Mayor Johnson, too, for embracing a New Urbanist Future. I wish the city’d go a step further and add a large roundabout with center fountain to the intersection of Lincoln Memorial and Clybourn as was shared in one of the earliest plans for reconstruction years ago.

    The confluence of traffic from five entry points makes that intersection a nightmare for both motorists and pedestrians. Why not tame traffic and highlight one of the signature corners of downtown at the same time.

  6. lobk says:

    I’m still very much in support of the “Tight Mainline Configuration,” Design Concept 5. It creates the narrowed footprint that allows for maximum future development, Clybourn Ave redesign, and elimination of on & off ramps without tearing down 794. It also maintains the alternate N/S highway entrance and exit route downtown and bypass for when there are major backups on I-43 and when there is heavy festival and concert traffic.

    South Water and 1st cannot handle the excess traffic that already exists during lakefront events, causing safety and backup issues along that busy stretch and made worse by boat traffic Spring to Fall that requires frequent opening of the Water St. Bridge.

    The mayor and other decision-makers need to spend quality time along this stretch during the warm weather months when activities are in full swing. Even on non-event days the route is hazardous to the many resident/tourist pedestrians that are forced to maneuver on the narrow sidewalks and cross the street along that route. 794 removal dashes any hope of a solution for that issue. We depend on the emergency vehicles that get caught up in the mess.

    You need to pay attention to the misgivings of those of us that reside and work in the burgeoning Historic Third & Fifth Wards, the ones who currently deal with these safety and traffic issues on a regular basis!

  7. bigb_andb says:

    Yes, it would lose federal funding.

  8. bigb_andb says:

    Nice area for developers to put more high priced condos and businesses.

    This isn’t about the future.

  9. DAGDAG says:

    Its too bad that they don’t seem to address the increased number of cars that will be on the roadways 30 years from now. When the freeways were going in and being planned in the 1960’s, I remember the pretty pictures that the Milwaukee County Expressway Commission (abolished in 1979) showing wide open spaces between an occasion bus and a few cars on the roadways. Did they choose not to show bumper to bumper rush hour traffic (on purpose) or did they not have a clue? It was like building a one car garage for a family that was soon to own three cars.

  10. says:

    Tight mainline configuration seems like a great compromise. I’d like to see all the freeways gone, but since that is not realistic tight mainline is the way to go.

  11. CraigR says:

    Obviously the mayor doesn’t care about the Bay View neighborhood. There’s plenty of land near Downtown that could be developed instead of adding a few parcels along this route, which I imagine that developers will want for free. And with the traffic, these few parcels will be as desirable and pedestrian friendly as the traffic infested land at 48th and Lisbon.

  12. BigRed81 says:

    Repair “as is”. Loss of Federal funding is a no brainier. That’s likely to removing l-794 entirely.

    Southeastern Milwaukee County needs I-794 not only to get downtown. Direct Access to I-94 & I-43 is crucial.
    Clogging Clybourn will lead to accidents & delay buisness.

  13. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @BigRed81 – There would be federal funding under any scenario. Federal funding pays for virtually all “highway” projects, including things like repaving National Avenue (59) or Prospect Avenue (32).

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