Coalition Proposes New Alternative to I-94 Expansion

The proposal recommends converting the Stadium Freeway to a boulevard and also includes the repair and modernization of the 3.5-mile stretch of interstate along with a new bus rapid transit line. 

The Recombobulation Area is an award-winning weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

A coalition opposed to the proposed expansion of the East-West corridor of I-94 in Milwaukee has released a new alternative plan that includes repairs of pavement and bridges within the highway’s current six-lane footprint, a new bus rapid transit route, additional pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and converting the Stadium Freeway into a boulevard.

The report — “Fix at Six: A Sustainable Alternative to Expanding I-94 in Milwaukee” — comes from a group known as the Coalition for More Responsible Transportation (CMRT), which includes 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, ACLU of Wisconsin, Midwestern Environmental Advocates, Sierra Club-Wisconsin Chapter, Wisconsin Environment and WISPIRG. The study unveils the coalition’s “Transit/Rehab Alternative.”

Supporters from Milwaukee Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), Wisconsin Bike Fed, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, and Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action spoke at an event unveiling the proposed alternative on Tuesday, Sept. 14. 

“This is a generational investment in Milwaukee’s transportation system,” said Gregg May, transportation policy director at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. “We should be pursuing a future that actually meets the needs of the people near the project corridor. The Transit/Rehab alternative lays out a path forward that is both feasible and reflective of the community’s desire for more walking, biking and transit options.”

The urban interstate currently has a total of six lanes, and the proposed expansion would grow that number to eight, with a new lane going in each direction. It would also expand the stadium interchange near American Family Field and reconstruct five more interchanges along the 3.5-mile stretch of highway on the city of Milwaukee’s west side. The name of the “Fix at Six” alternative proposal refers to repairing the highway, but keeping the total number of lanes the same. 

While the groups forming this coalition are opposed to the widening of the 3.5-mile East-West corridor of I-94 and expansion of the stadium interchange in this $1.1 billion proposed project, even the most ardent highway expansion opponents have been in favor of repair and modernization of the interstate. 

Craig Thompson, Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) Secretary designee, said in an interview with The Recombobulation Area earlier this year that a repair/modernization option would cost between $800 million and $850 million. But expansion opponents have contended that WisDOT has never meaningfully examined the option of fixing the highway in its existing footprint. 

While the proposed expansion of the highway was advanced by both Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-controlled state legislature, the start of construction has been delayed to 2022, at the earliest. WisDOT announced in April that it would be undertaking a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the project. Thompson said this undertaking would include a robust public engagement process. 

The 43-page “Fix at Six” report aims to start that conversation with a comprehensive look at what a real alternative proposal could be. 

The plan prioritizes modernizing the highway, and would include such aspects as replacing pavement, repairing bridges, fixing safety hotspots, downsizing interchanges and ramps, accommodating more transit, minimizing stormwater runoff, remediating harmful effects on racial equity, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

Additional key aspects in the study include proposals for a new bus rapid transit (BRT) route along National and Greenfield avenues, and plans to convert Wisconsin Highway 175 — the Stadium Freeway — to a boulevard.

The Recombobulation Area’s “Expanding the Divide” series explored the need for more transit options like BRT, and advocated for the Stadium Freeway to be converted to a boulevard

Construction is now underway on the $55 million East-West BRT line that will run nine miles from the Couture high-rise at the lakefront to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa. An additional North-South BRT that would run the length of Milwaukee County from Glendale to Oak Creek is also being discussed

This proposed National/Greenfield BRT line would run from the Wisconsin Center downtown, past such locations as the Milwaukee Intermodal, Harley-Davidson Museum, Potawatomi Bingo Casino, the Cesar Chavez commercial district, the Silver City neighborhood, and the Zablocki VA Center to the corner of 108th Street (Highway 100) and Greenfield Avenue in West Allis.

The report also calls for exploring future opportunities in commuter rail, with one option shown here in conjunction with other BRT lines. 

With the Stadium Freeway, the proposal to convert it to a boulevard comes with a particular emphasis on making it bicycle and pedestrian friendly. 

The report says converting it from a highway spur to an at-grade boulevard “could help to tame traffic in the corridor, rebuild and reconnect the neighborhoods it now passes through, increase wetlands and open space, protect water and air quality, and provide redevelopment and recreational opportunities.” It also says ramps and interchanges should be analyzed for locations for downsizing. The report also says plans should advance to eventually replace I-794 in downtown Milwaukee with an at-grade boulevard.

Altogether, the “Transit/Rehab Alternative” includes four main points. Here’s how the report breaks it down:

1. Repair the road’s pavement and bridges as needed, but minimize new pavement and keep the current six lanes. WisDOT’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) discusses the pavement deficiencies and makes a strong case that full replacement is needed. The new pavement should be designed using the latest and best techniques for minimizing carbon footprint, managing stormwater, maximizing safety, and sustaining a long life.

2. Add a new bus rapid transit (BRT) line along National and Greenfield avenues. The East-West Corridor is full of opportunities for adding transit. This second line, augmented by future north-south lines, would improve the throughput of people in the corridor while reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and air emissions. To further environmental justice goals, support should be given to the new north-south BRT route along 27th Street as proposed by the MPO.

3. Promote thriving, walkable/bikeable neighborhoods in the East-West Corridor by building bicycle infrastructure near the corridor as listed in the 2010 Milwaukee Bicycle Master Plan. This includes on bridges crossing the Menomonee Valley, and turning Wisconsin Highway 175 (Stadium Freeway) into a bicycle and pedestrian friendly boulevard that connects communities. The goal is to create safer streets that address traffic-related deaths by fixing dangerous arterials near the I-94 corridor.

4. Explore future opportunities to maximize sustainable alternatives including additional north-south BRT routes, commuter rail, and better housing and zoning practices including Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).

Read the full press release announcing the plan here.

Read the full report here

Read The Recombobulation Area’s multi-part “Expanding the Divide” series, an in-depth look at the proposed expansion of the 3.5-mile East-West corridor of I-94.

Watch Dan Shafer discuss the series on “Our Issues Milwaukee.”

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, 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 Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

Subscribe to The Recombobulation Area newsletter here and follow us on Facebook at @therecombobulationarea.

Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.