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 FixatSix.org.

More about the I-94 East-West Expansion

Read more about I-94 East-West Expansion here

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