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Highway widening opposition effort hits a roadblock at the Milwaukee County Board. Is this the end of the road for the six vs. eight debate?
With a resolution against highway widening failing by a single vote, the six vs. eight debate for the East-West Corridor seems all but over. The conversation over the project now moves to a new phase.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
The debate over the controversial proposal to widen and reconstruct the 3.5-mile East-West corridor of I-94 seems to have reached a certain kind of endpoint this week.
A Milwaukee County Board resolution pushing back on the state’s plans to expand the interstate from six to eight lanes failed with an 8-9 vote.
The resolution was introduced by freshman board supervisor Peter Burgelis, whose district (the 15th) includes much of the proposed project. The resolution called on the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) to reconstruct the corridor, between 16th Street and 70th Street, in the interstate’s current six-lane footprint (i.e. “Fix at Six”), opposing the eight-lane widening option.
There has been a significant amount of opposition to the eight-lane widening proposal. This has been particularly true among those representing districts in closest proximity to the project’s footprint. But, to date, there has not been an effort from local government in Milwaukee to take steps as an elected body to formally voice opposition to widening the highway. The resolution that was up for a vote would not have had any direct impact on any final decisions, but would have sent a strong message at a crucial moment.
Because it was just about a month ago that WisDOT, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Gov. Evers’ administration announced their “preferred alternative” of the eight-lane option. This came just days after the governor’s re-election.
As part of that announcement, the administration announced public hearings, which were held this week in Milwaukee County. As they have throughout this process, the Coalition for More Responsible Transportation – a coalition of many organizations, including environmental, urbanist, social justice and religious groups – voiced its opposition to this project.
But ever since we first started covering this project in-depth here at The Recombobulation Area – including our three-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning series, “Expanding the Divide,” along with further coverage of the project in the time that’s followed – the most likely outcome has been that the eight-lane option would be selected.
As it stands, the state’s eight-lane selection isn’t a final final decision. The debate isn’t over over. But it is moving to a different phase, one less about a six vs. eight lanes to a conversation over details, accountability, and connected projects. The Board vote on Supervisor Burgelis’ “Fix at Six” resolution seems to signify a certain kind of symbolic end to this debate.
The vote at the County Board on that resolution was as follows (note: an “AYE” vote means supporting “Fix at Six” and rejecting highway expansion plans):
AYE - 8
Taylor (5th District)
NO - 9
Taylor (17th District)
The vote from Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson (10th District) against the resolution was a bit of a surprise. Supervisor Priscilla Coggs-Jones (13th District) was absent for the debate, and it’s possible she could have been a “yes” vote. South side supervisor Dyango Zerpa (14th District) was another vote that could’ve gone either way, as most supervisors in closest proximity to I-94 voted to support the “Fix at Six” plan.
Highway expansion is one of the few issues that both Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin seem to agree on. It has never fully made sense why Gov. Evers supports this project, especially considering how many of his fellow Democrats in Milwaukee – including his current lieutenant governor – oppose the widening effort. But, to Evers’ and WisDOT’s credit, they have improved this project considerably in the public process that’s followed since its reintroduction in 2020.
In early 2021, WisDOT initiated a broader, updated review of the project. Versions of this project have dated back several gubernatorial terms, and this is the first time a six-lane option has been meaningfully studied. WisDOT also responded to public feedback by opting for a right-sized Stadium Interchange that costs $75 million less than the initial gargantuan designs. The number of businesses and homes that would be displaced by this project were also significantly reduced. And WisDOT and the city and county of Milwaukee are also collaborating on a study to reimagine Wisconsin Highway 175 North – the Stadium Freeway – which could prove to be one of the most exciting and transformative public works projects Milwaukee has seen in a generation. Overall, this is a much better plan than it was when it was initially re-introduced.
To be sure, on the whole, the plan being chosen as the state’s preference still a bad plan. Gov. Tony Evers and his administration are still making the wrong decision by going with the eight-lane option.
Widening a highway in the middle of what many consider to be the nation’s most segregated metro area is going to deepen divisions in the Milwaukee region. The expansion will still encroach into diverse neighborhoods like Merrill Park, Martin Drive and Piggsville. One of the top priorities for this region needs to be addressing that segregation and the disparities that come with it, and this does the opposite.
Safety issues, regarded as a paramount concern by WisDOT officials, would be addressed similarly by six- or eight-lane options, both of which would remove the left-lane exits that create the most problems. Additionally, WisDOT’s own projections say the eight-lane option would lead to more fatal accidents.
The problem that added lanes is aiming to solve – congestion – is not a major one in Milwaukee, as the region ranks near the bottom in a ranking of worst traffic among large U.S. metros (67th worst out of 80 metros, according to 2021 data). There’s also little to no evidence to suggest widening lanes is a long-term solution to reduce traffic.
The shift to working from home for many white collar jobs will mean fewer people commuting downtown by car. American Family Insurance just dropped plans for a new downtown Milwaukee office, citing the increase in remote work. The highway project has stubbornly refused to adjust to this changing reality.
There’s also just a complete lack of creativity at just about every intersection within this project. Instead of trying to do things differently to create something truly transformative for the region, it’s been approached as a Point A to Point B engineering task, dull and uninspiring at every on and off ramp.
This expansion will also exacerbate the many environmental concerns that highways always bring, further polluting air and water, doing so at a time when we’re already seeing record precipitation in the area as climate change continues to accelerate.
The project still does not include permanent funding for transit. It could also squeeze land surrounding American Family Field, potentially complicating any plans for a potential “Beer District” for the Milwaukee Brewers. This is completely at odds with Milwaukee’s urbanist growth rhetoric we’ve heard in recent months. This services suburbs at the expense of the city. Underserved and under-resourced communities will continue to be underserved and under-resourced. We could go on and on and on.
And we have. We’ve said repeatedly that this project misses the mark at every level. By and large, that continues to be the case.
But the six vs. eight debate portion of the East-West Corridor project appears to be coming to its expected and uninspiring conclusion, and Milwaukee will be stuck looking down the barrel of the rest of the 2020’s with construction of a highway in a manner that is unnecessary, misguided and genuinely damaging to the city and region. This will then be our reality for at least the next half-century. It’s not great.
So, the big debate on this project might be winding down, but there are still details to consider within what will ultimately unfold, and it will be extremely important to hold leaders accountable as construction begins and the rubber meets the too-large road.
Those who have gotten involved in the highway opposition effort have much they could now turn their attention to. There’s mitigation funding that needs to be spent wisely – and hopefully could translate to permanent investments (like a Bus Rapid Transit route on 27th Street, or on National and Greenfield avenues, or even a Hop extension). There’s the impending WI-175/Stadium Freeway study, which is going to raise some important questions about how best to reimagine that stretch of highway. There’s the debate over the future of 794 downtown. And there’s an extremely important debate unfolding about the future of West National Avenue, a stretch of state roadway that’s seen 18 dead, 82 seriously injured, and nearly 500 other injuries in the last two decades. It’s going to be important to get all of this right.
This debate over six or eight lanes on I-94 is ending, but the work to create better infrastructure that better serves the people of this continues.
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ICYMI: Dan Shafer guest hosted part of “As Goes Wisconsin” this week. Guests included State Rep. (and City Attorney candidate) Evan Goyke, Tanya Fonseca of the Milwaukee Department of City Development, and Alison Garfield of The Cap Times.
Listen to the show as a podcast here:
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.