WisDOT to pursue freeway expansion to 8 lanes along I-94 East-West corridor

Evening commuters on I-94 near the 35th Street exit. State and local officials are still debating how best to use federal infrastructure funding to improve the aging stretch of highway between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges.
Evening commuters on I-94 near the 35th Street exit. (Cara Spoto/BizTimes)

Last updated on November 14th, 2022 at 02:10 pm

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation announced Friday that it will be pursuing a plan to expand the six-lane I-94 East-West freeway between 16th Street and 70th Street in Milwaukee to eight lanes.

Under the $1.2 billion plan that WisDOT plans to pursue, the 60-year-old, 3.5-mile long stretch of freeway, which sits between the Marquette Interchange in downtown Milwaukee and the recently rebuilt Zoo Interchanges, would be completely reconstructed, adding one lane in each direction, while still maintaining its current footprint.

Reconstruction plans also call for replacing the Stadium Interchange with a diverging diamond interchange, modernizing the Hawley Road, 35th Street and 25th/27th Street interchanges to provide better and safer access for Milwaukee neighborhoods; enhancing connections for nearby Milwaukee neighborhoods to other areas of the city, county and state; improving bicycle and pedestrian accommodations across I-94 and connecting the Hank Aaron State Trail with the Oak Leaf Trail.

As part of the overall project, WisDOT also says it plans to invest $25 million in transit solutions as a traffic mitigation strategy during construction.

The announcement of WisDOT’s plans for the project comes after months of discussion and input gathering by the agency and years of debate in the community about the wisdom of expanding the freeway.

“Safety is our agency’s highest priority and doing nothing about this section of I-94 is not an option,” WisDOT Secretary Craig Thompson said in a Friday press release. “Listening to people who live in the community is a vital part of creating safe roads. We placed a high priority on public involvement during the I-94 East-West reevaluation which resulted in significant changes to the previous proposal, and we remain committed to working with stakeholders to minimize any impacts to the community.”

Area business groups have been advocating for years for the expansion of the freeway. Businesses and trade groups, including the Waukesha County Business Alliance, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Near West Side Partners, and the Hispanic Collaborative, today applauded WisDOT’s decision to move ahead with expansion of the freeway.

“If you drive this corridor, you know it is past time to get this project done, and done right,” said Nancy Hernandez, president of the Hispanic Collaborative. “This is the next step in the process. We are committed to helping WisDOT and (the Federal Highway Administration) get this much-needed project over the finish line.”

“WisDOT analyzed the options using the latest data, continuously sought input from stakeholders, and has incorporated stakeholder feedback for improved bike and pedestrian facilities planned along the various local roadways as part of the project,” said Corey Zetts, executive director of Menomonee Valley Partners. “This diligence will pay dividends for decades with a reduction in congestion-related traffic accidents and a corridor ready to keep up with the region’s bright future.”

“This is a once-in-generation opportunity to rebuild Milwaukee’s aging infrastructure while building its workforce,” said Terry McGowan, president and business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139. “This project provides a path for new apprentices to learn a craft that can lead to a rewarding career working in the building and construction trades. It also presents the unique opportunity for workers to complete their paid apprenticeships on one project site without leaving Milwaukee.”

However other groups have strongly opposed the freeway expansion saying it is unnecessary, a waste of money, would harm the environment and more should be invested in mass transit in Milwaukee. Opponents of the expansion project had advocated for a rebuild of the freeway, but maintaining it at six lanes.

“It is a mistake to be expanding highways in Milwaukee while (Milwaukee County Transit Sytems) faces an upcoming fiscal cliff,” said Gregg May, transportation policy director for environmental group 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin. “To consider committing more than a billion dollars to an expansion project like this, which will divert funds away from crumbling local infrastructure, and disproportionately impact people of color — is dangerous and irresponsible. We implore WisDOT to reconsider expansion and to explore long-term transit funding opportunities and to use remediation dollars to fund (bus rapid transit) capital expansion projects along National Avenue and 27th Street.”

“It is unacceptable that WISDOT has ignored the calls of thousands of Wisconsinites to fix the highway at six lanes and instead decided to move forward with an eight-lane proposal,” said Elizabeth Ward, director of Sierra Club Wisconsin Chapter. “This proposal will increase water and climate pollution, health problems, racial disparities, and more. WisDOT needs to reconsider and move forward with a Fix at Six solution.”

In a joint statement Aldermen Michael Murphy and Bob Bauman called the freeway expansion “unnecessary and unwanted by those most closely residing to the area.”

“We have heard time and time again that residents want to see valuable public dollars allocated to the repair of existing local roads, other critical local transportation infrastructure, and enhanced public transit,” the aldermen said. “To invest such a hefty sum of money into a project that will disrupt businesses and homeowners represents spending priorities that do not align with what people want, especially when traffic volume doesn’t justify the need for additional lanes.”

Public hearings

Those interested in providing input on the proposed changes can attend two public hearings planned for Monday, Dec. 12 and Wednesday, Dec. 14.

The Dec. 12 hearing will take place from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Wisconsin State Fair Park, Tommy Thompson Youth Center, Gate #5, 640 S. 84th St.

The Dec. 14 hearing will take place from 4 to 7 p.m.  at Marquette University High School, 3401 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee (enter from Michigan Street parking lot)

Cara covers commercial and residential real estate. She has an extensive background in local government reporting and hopes to use her experience writing about both urban and rural redevelopment to better inform readers. Cara lives in Waukesha with her husband, a teenager, a toddler, a dog named Neutron, a bird named Potter, and a lizard named Peyoye. She loves music, food, and comedy, but not necessarily in that order.

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