Proposed alternative to I-94 East-West expansion gets pushback from business groups

"Fix at Six" plan would keep freeway at six lanes, support transit and pedestrian infrastructure

Traffic on the I-94 east-west corridor just east of the Stadium Interchange. The interchange is one of several that could be rebuilt under the proposed expansion project.
Traffic on the I-94 east-west corridor just east of the Stadium Interchange. The interchange is one of several that could be rebuilt under the proposed expansion project. Credit: Arthur Thomas/BizTimes Media

Last updated on September 17th, 2021 at 11:54 am

A coalition of environmentalists, transit advocates and other groups have put forward an alternative to expanding I-94 East-West between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges, which would keep that stretch of the Milwaukee freeway at six lanes while investing more in transit infrastructure and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

But that plan is receiving some pushback from the business community, and a coalition representative claims the state remains committed to expanding the freeway.

On Tuesday the coalition revealed its “Fix at Six” proposal at a news conference. The plan is backed by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, ACLU of Wisconsin, Midwestern Environmental Advocates, the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter and Wisconsin Environment.

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

Among other things, Fix at Six recommends:

  • Repairing the roadway and bridges as needed.
  • Adding a new bus rapid-transit line along National and Greenfield avenues.
  • Building walkable and bikeable neighborhoods along the east-west corridor, which would include transforming the existing Stadium freeway into a boulevard.
  • Exploring opportunities to maximize sustainable alternatives, such as more north-south BRT routes, commuter rail lines and better housing and zoning practices.

Wisconsin Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Pyrtiz said the department “welcomes all suggestions and additional input.” He added the I-94 East-West design team will submit plans to the federal government examining both a six-lane and an eight-lane option for rebuilding the freeway.

But, May contends that WisDOT fully intends to move ahead with an eight-lane expansion.

“Our group has met with staff in the Evers administration and WisDOT Secretary Craig Thompson about transit alternatives, but they remain committed at this time to expansion only,” May said in an email.

May also pointed to a letter that Gov. Tony Evers sent out last week, which he said repeat WisDOT talking points in favor of expansion.

A number of business groups have long supported an I-94 expansion. They say highway expansions are vital to state commerce, as they are a main avenue for the transportation of goods to and from the region.

Their defense of freeway expansion, or “modernization,” remained following the Fix at Six unveiling.

Chris Jenkins, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said a lot of the discussion on the alternative plan centered around commuting alternatives.

“Providing commuting alternatives may be an option for some, but most experts still foresee the majority of travel in our region being done by car,” he said in an email.

Jenkins pointed to the freeway’s role in statewide commerce. He said an estimated 17 million tons of freight, valued at $25 billion, travels through the corridor each year. Also, he said, 21,000 businesses and 310,000 jobs are located within five miles of the corridor.

Tracy Johnson, chief executive officer of Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin, said an expanded freeway addresses the economic needs of the region and state.

“As we come back from the pandemic, traffic is increasing and the need for transport of goods rises,” she said. “We need to move forward with WisDOT’s serious, data-supported plan to rebuild the corridor to meet the demands of the next 50-plus years.”

Johnson added that some of what has been proposed, such as bicycle infrastructure, is not appropriate to attach to a highway modernization project. Johnson applauded WisDOT for its community outreach and said the department respects concerns that opponents to expansion have raised.

Steve Baas, the new executive director of Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, a group representing roadbuilders, took a diplomatic approach.

He said roadbuilders will be involved either way, whether I-94 remains at six lanes or expands to eight. But it is clear that the freeway needs to be rebuilt.

“Something needs to happen there because the corridor is nearly beyond its serviceable lifetime,” Baas said. “If we do not reconstruct that corridor you’re going to be in an almost endless cycle of short-term, costly resurfacings that do nothing to improve the condition of the road or corridor long term. Ignoring this is not an option.”

But Baas, who was until recently the head lobbyist at MMAC, offered another thought.

Without naming specific proposals, Baas said if the Milwaukee region is bullish about its economic future it would choose to build the highway one way. If the region was more timid about its potential growth, it would rebuild the freeway a different way.

The aging 3.5-mile stretch of I-94 between 17th and 70th streets has been long eyed for reconstruction. The state previously had federal approval for a freeway expansion to eight lanes, plus the reconfiguration of several interchanges.

It was put on hold under then-Gov. Scott Walker, but Evers said he wanted it to move forward. The Republican-controlled Legislature approved funding in the state’s most recent two-year budget to start planning work.

WisDOT announced in April it was expanding opportunity for public input on the project planning process. The agency hoped to obtain final federal approval as soon as late 2022.

The state needs to obtain what’s called a federal Record of Decision by means of submitting an environmental impact statement. In this case, WisDOT will submit a supplemental EIS because its previous one has expired.

Pyritz said the project design team should conduct a public hearing in late fall or early winter “to share the information developed during the work on the SEIS.”

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Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.

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