'The status quo is unacceptable': On potential freeway removal projects in Milwaukee, Johnson and Crowley want change
From The Recombobulation Area’s extended interview with the mayor and county executive.
The Recombobulation Area is a ten-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
One of the biggest topics in the news this year in Milwaukee is that of freeway removal. In particular, the discussion surrounding the potential removal of I-794, between the Marquette Interchange and the lakefront, took center stage.
And that’s not even the only potential freeway removal project being discussed in the city right now. The potential reimagining of the Stadium Freeway, something we’ve advocated for here at The Recombobulation Area for years, is also advancing forward, with potential designs and renderings set to be released early next year.
Mayor Johnson and County Executive Crowley have been vocal supporters of the effort to reimagine the Stadium Freeway, and continue to express serious interest in converting the two-mile stretch of freeway at state highway 175 to a boulevard.
“I think the (Stadium Freeway) can definitely be reimagined,” said Johnson. “Removing that “Highway to Nowhere,” and really creating a boulevard right there, which creates even more developmental opportunities for us to build that infrastructure so we can be that place and actually have the infrastructure available for when we actually get the density and get to a million people.”
Comparing the 175 removal effort to that of 794, Johnson says it’s a “much easier call” to move forward with removing the Stadium Freeway spur.
“That’s an opportunity for us to hopefully be in a position to pull that (freeway) out,” said Johnson. “That’d be a blank canvas. You could create a model street there.”
“A real connection between the north and south side,” Crowley added.
Johnson also listed another freeway in Milwaukee where he says there is opportunity “for potential removal.”
“You look further Northwest, and the Fond du Lac Freeway on the northwest side of the city of my old aldermanic district, I think, presents a lot of opportunity, too, for potential removal,” said Johnson.
The “Fond du Lac Freeway” Johnson references is state highway 145, which runs from the northwest side of Milwaukee to Interstate 41, where it intersects right before Menomonee Falls at the edge of Milwaukee County.
As for the most high-profile potential freeway removal site, at 794, views are a bit more complex.
“I have not actually made a decision or as far as where I am on 794,” said Crowley.
But one thing is for certain, that both Crowley and Johnson agree on — change is needed.
“One of the things that I feel comfortable saying right now, is that one of the options that I think will be considered – which is, “rebuild it in kind” — I think that should not be whatever the option is…The status quo is unacceptable to me. I think that certainly should not happen.”
The “rebuild in kind” option, as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) outlined, would be to reconstruct ramps and bridges in the current configuration. When this topic was first proposed by WisDOT, the price tag of replacing those ramps was estimated at $300 million.
These Milwaukee leaders were clear in saying that option is not preferred.
“The images that all of us saw that were produced, that showed renderings of what a future Milwaukee could be without 794 there were enticing,” said Johnson. “I mean, you'd have to be dead to not think that that's something that's very, very appealing.”
But there are additional complicating factors to consider, he said, including bridges over the Milwaukee River, access to the Port of Milwaukee, and how traffic patterns might change without the freeway there.
Said Johnson, “The other thing as well here that we have to consider — and all this has been studied right now — is the fact that if the freeway were to come down, does it create a freeway on the ground? Does it create a space that is unsafe? And then, we talk about the separation between the central business district and the Third Ward, those two parts of downtown Milwaukee, (with) bringing that down to grade, does that create an environment that's unsafe for everybody — for pedestrians, for bicyclists, for the like? That's something we have to consider as well as it relates to 794. So, again, that's being studied. And we'll obviously look at that. It's a big important conversation and a big important decision that will be generational. It’s a (decision) we'll make when we're in the position to do so.”
Crowley added that he is weighing additional factors as it relates to suburban municipalities in Milwaukee County.
“As a representative of the entire county, I also want to make sure that I understand the entire breakdown in the traffic impact that not only affects the City of Milwaukee, but all different types of communities,” he said. “I know that there's conversations being had, and I've seen some of the models and understand exactly why folks want to be able to remove 794. When you think about the acreage that we (could) free up, the green space, the infrastructure that can be built, that contributes to us being successful as a community. But I have not seen all of the data for me to be able to make an informed decision related to whether I believe that it should be torn down.”
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You can watch the full video interview here on Substack.
You can also watch it on YouTube.
The full conversation is also available here at The Recombobulation Area as a podcast, which you can listen to here.
Find our full coverage of this interview with Johnson and Crowley here at The Recombobulation Area.
Audio recorded and mixed by Podcamp Media.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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