After years of delay, the state’s transportation department under Gov. Tony Evers’ administration is looking to plow ahead with a pair of massive road projects in the Milwaukee area.
But looming on the horizon could be another legal battle over one of the projects – the expansion of the I-94 east-west corridor – that business leaders say is critical to the state’s economy.
It’s no secret the Wisconsin Department of Transportation does not have the money it needs to fund all of the transportation projects on its wish list, but Evers announced this summer he would seek federal approval to revive the I-94 expansion project.
The approximately 3.5-mile project would add a lane in each direction to I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges, and would also reconfigure the interchanges in between those two.
Separately, Evers included a proposed I-43 expansion project in his 2019-’21 state budget proposal, which would, among other things, add lanes to the freeway between Silver Spring Drive in Glendale to State Highway 60 in Grafton.
The interstate corridors are vital to the state’s overall economy, said Steve Baas, senior vice president of governmental affairs with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
“People have to realize the critical importance of the I-94/43 corridor here in Wisconsin to the overall economy in southeast Wisconsin,” he said. “One in five jobs in the state are located within 10 minutes of that corridor. This is the economic powerhouse of the state, and the ability to move goods in and out of this region is critical to the entire economy of the state.”
Due to where each project stands, there are more tangible dates to look forward to with the I-43 upgrade. WisDOT spokesman Dan Sellers said the $550 million project is in the final design phase. This spring, WisDOT and the Federal Highway Administration approved and signed the re-evaluation of an environmental impact study on the project, Sellers said.
“This approval means that the original environmental decision from 2014 is still valid and the project can proceed to final design and construction,” he wrote in an email.
While financial commitments are in place for the full project cost, not all of the required money has been put toward it yet. It will come in increments over the next couple of two-year state fiscal budgets, Sellers said.
Utility relocation work is expected to begin next year, he said. WisDOT expects to begin seeking bidders for work-zone preparations in late summer 2021.
The rest of the bid letting schedule includes:
The work-zone prep work will begin in late 2021, with major construction starting in spring 2022. The project is anticipated to finish by early 2025.
The I-94 project is much further from the construction stages than the I-43 project. In fact, WisDOT was not prepared to give estimates on when the work would actually take place.
WisDOT spokesman Michael Pyritz said the department is working on a reassessment document for the I-94 project, which it will submit to FHWA. This work will take place over the next couple of months. Pyritz said that the reassessment document will “serve as our roadmap for getting the Record of Decision established.”
“So, until we get that done there’s not a lot of clarity yet,” Pyritz said. “As far as when construction can begin, I think a lot of that depends on the next couple of months and where we come from that. At the moment the process is just re-beginning, and once we get that reassessment document done and agreed to, we will know the path forward.”
Evers’ decision to enumerate the I-43 project in his budget over the I-94 project was a matter of practicality. The process for its re-approval by the federal government was simpler than I-94, which had its Record of Decision rescinded by FHWA, Baas said.
Even so, the I-94 project has the backing of business leaders beyond the confines of Milwaukee County, who argue its implications for commerce reach far beyond that 3.5-mile stretch.
“Carrying $23 billion in freight each year, the I-94 east-west corridor is the heart and soul of the region and the state’s economy; almost half of Wisconsin’s exports leave the state through the southeast,” Suzanne Kelley, president and chief executive officer of the Waukesha County Business Alliance, said in a statement. “An efficient, safe transportation network is key to economic growth. Now more than ever, we believe this is a vital economic development issue for our region and the state.”
But the expansion projects aren’t universally supported. And projects along the I-94 corridor in particular have been subject to legal battles.
In 2017, when I-94 east-west was on track for construction, a trio of groups including the NAACP Milwaukee branch, the Sierra Club John Muir Chapter and Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope filed a lawsuit challenging the planning involved with the project. The groups alleged that officials failed to follow federal laws in approving it.
Dennis Grzezinski is a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was withdrawn after the I-94 project stalled. He also represented plaintiffs in a similar lawsuit filed in 2012 over the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange project.
The I-94 plaintiffs argued that state and federal leaders didn’t factor in a number of things when reviewing the I-94 project, such as its potential impact on suburban sprawl, racial segregation and the environment. They also questioned the accuracy of the traffic projections used as justification for adding lanes.
“There were all sorts of reasons to expect that projections of significant increase in traffic volume, and the demand for highway space year after year after year, was not going to happen,” Grzezinski said. “Some of those were related to the changing interests and behavior of younger people. … Millennials did not grow up in a car-craved society.”
Grzezinski argued that expanding the freeway would not ultimately fix congestion. Traffic would be better for a few years but would again worsen as people began taking more trips they otherwise wouldn’t have, or more people began using the freeway as opposed to other routes or methods of transportation, due to the added convenience. This would wipe away the benefits from the expansion, he said.
He also pointed to the disparities between the amount spent on road projects versus transit projects, such as rail or bus lines.
Baas said much of this argument is based on the “false choice” that investment in one area has to happen at the expense of the other.
“You obviously need a network of all of them, and you can invest in all of them,” he said.
Baas also pointed out there’s only so much commercial benefit to investing in public transit, since many businesses simply need the freeway. Those businesses provide jobs to local residents, he said.
“MillerCoors isn’t moving its beer to market on the bus,” he said. “Harley-Davidson isn’t moving bikes all over the world on the streetcar. If you don’t have a highway infrastructure capable of supporting a manufacturing-based economy, the people who eventually are the biggest losers are the people who work in those manufacturing industries.”
In response to that argument, Grzezinski noted the unequal levels of spending on highway expansion versus public transit.
“If one looks at the state transportation budgets over the last several decades, the amount of money going into adding lanes to existing highways has been going up and up, almost steadily, consuming a larger part of the transportation budget,” he said. “Meanwhile, spending on maintaining existing highways was substantially level or declining slightly, and spending on public transit was vastly smaller than either of those other two, but also declining.”
Grzezinski declined to say whether the plaintiffs in the original I-94 lawsuit would again bring the project to court if it was put back on track. But, he said, their chief complaints remain.
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