Inside the Opposition to the Billion-Dollar Highway Expansion in Milwaukee

We have arrived at a juncture where the opposition to this project warrants greater examination. This is Part I of the "Expanding the Divide" series.

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

Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation are reviving the Scott Walker-era proposal to add lanes to Interstate 94 in the city of Milwaukee. View looking west along the highway. Photo by Alena Mozhjer, Getty Images

“Expanding the Divide” is a multi-part series on the proposed expansion of the 3.5-mile East-West corridor of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee.
Read the introduction to the series here.

“They really don’t care. They want to expand the highway, for what? For five minutes, for a few blocks? Come on. For people to come into our city and not pay the taxes we’re paying? For a few minutes of their pleasure of going to the Fiserv Forum and everything else they want to go to? But we are here daily, living this life.”

Those are the words of Adele Nance, who has lived in Milwaukee for more than 20 years and has used the bus to get around that entire time. She lives in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood and works as a caregiver, primarily at Aurora St. Luke’s on the city’s south side. She says people like her — people of color, people living in the city — are “getting left behind” as money is allocated to another highway expansion, and that’s led her to get involved with MICAH and the expansion opposition.

“(Politicians) always put us on the back burner,” she said. “They say, ‘We’re going to do this for the community when we get elected.’ And guess what, we’re still left in the cold, waiting for your empty promises. I’m tired.”

Historically, highway projects have not been kind to people of color in Milwaukee or in cities across the country. Thousands of homes owned by Black Milwaukeeans were destroyed to build highways, said Reggie Jackson co-founder of Nurturing Diversity Partners and Head Griot for America’s Black Holocaust Musuem in Milwaukee, who studies segregation in Milwaukee. 

While not the lone cause of the destruction of places like the former Bronzeville neighborhood and the business district on Walnut Street — the “Urban Renewal” projects of the 1950s had much to do with that, too — highway expansions of I-43 and the Park East Freeway did significant and lasting damage to Black neighborhoods in Milwaukee. 

“Fifty percent of the homes in the Milwaukee area that were destroyed were homes occupied by Black people,” he said. “There were a total of over 14,000 homes destroyed to build all the freeways in Milwaukee.”

That history continues to have a lingering impact.

“When we think about freeway projects back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘90s when these freeways were built, there’s always concern in particularly Black and Brown neighborhoods about them being impacted differently than in white communities,” said Jackson “The community feels — and there’s justification for it — that their neighborhoods are targeted. They don’t really have a strong voice to compete with the people who are pushing these projects.”

For Nance, instead of pushing these highway expansion projects, investing in public transit — particularly in the bus system — would dramatically improve her day-to-day.

“It would make my life much easier,” she said. “Everything I do. I go to my doctor's appointment on the bus, I do my grocery shopping using the bus line. I go to work. I’ve had to turn down a lot of cases because of bus service. I’m not going to make an agreement to work with someone and then be late. That‘s not my code of ethics. If I'm going to go to work, I'm going to be at work on time or get there early.”

Choosing to fund transit instead of highways is a matter of addressing the greater need, she said. 

“You make it easier for people to drive a car, but you're not making it easier for people who need to catch the bus. Put the money where the people need it the most. Make it feasible for people. Make it feasible for those who need it.”

For many, that’s what this opposition comes down to: Priorities. 

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EXPANSION VS. RECONSTRUCTION

Broadly speaking, many opposing the effort say that funding for highways should instead go toward funding public transportation, as well as towards local road repair and pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. Part of this is a simple case of: fund this, not that. 

But there is another level to this opposition where many see these massive highway projects as doing active harm to the community. This is particularly the case with environmental groups and racial justice organizations. 

Another piece, too, is that many say highway expansion does not even achieve its stated goals to begin with, citing studies — and there are many — that say widening highways does not reduce congestion.

“There’s an immense amount of research and data that has gone into the efficacy of highway building and highway expansion that show us that those types of efforts are not actually yielding less congestion, they’re not yielding better scenarios for the community that directly surround it,” said Caressa Givens, Milwaukee advocacy and projects manager at the Wisconsin Bike Fed. “They might be benefitting the suburbs in terms of their way of functioning, but in the areas where these projects are happening, the congestion has not been alleviated, it’s actually increasing.”

Pieced together, many of those concerns were raised in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, sent March 16. The letter was signed by dozens of leaders from faith groups, civil rights organizations, environmental groups, business groups, and transit organizations.

And while this opposition coalition says in this letter that the expansion proposal will “disproportionately harm Milwaukeeans of color” and “increase global warming emissions,” and that it’s a “waste of public resources,” one thing that even these ardent expansion opponents agree upon is the need to repair and modernize the highway. 

“I have not met anyone who is in opposition to the expansion project that doesn’t think the road needs repair,” said Cassie Steiner, senior campaign coordinator with the Wisconsin Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Across the board, there’s an acknowledgement that our infrastructure should be taken care of — repaving, surface improvements, safety improvements are all necessary.”

“We are looking at this as an infrastructure spending project,” said Gregg May, transportation policy director for 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. “We would like to modernize the highway, not expand it, and instead get transit services to these underserved neighborhoods.” 

“Fixing the highway within its existing footprint at six lanes is what our coalition is advocating for,” said Susanna Cain, transform transportation associate for WISPIRG (Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group). “We are all for fixing the highway and updating it to modern safety standards. It’s part of fixing our infrastructure.”

Craig Thompson, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) told The Recombobulation Area that the estimated cost of the repair/modernization option without adding lanes would cost between $800 million and $850 million. The cost for the full expansion is estimated to be more than $1.1 billion. Even with WisDOT’s estimate, that’s roughly a $300 million price difference — more than double the cost of the Milwaukee streetcar, the topic of endless debate throughout the region for years on end.

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DISTRUST OF THE WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

If you talk to enough people who’ve opposed the many highway expansion projects that have cut their way through the region over the years, you’ll find a common sentiment among many of them: There is a strong, pervasive, almost overwhelming distrust of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. 

“WisDOT is not getting us straight answers, which, anyone who has dealt with WisDOT wouldn’t be surprised” said Gretchen Schuldt, a community organizer who has been involved in highway opposition coalitions for years. 

“There’s not a lot of point in communicating or arguing with WisDOT,” said Givens. “They’ve got a script and they’re going to stick to it.”

Whether it’s information about congestion, economic development, or environmental impacts, people organizing against highway expansion see a pattern of misleading information from the department leading these efforts. 

“I don’t think we have the full information,” said Cheryl Nenn of the Milwaukee Riverkeepers. “We would really like to see some apples-to-apples comparisons of what are the environmental impacts and community impacts from fixing the highway in its existing footprint versus the expansion. They only seriously looked at the expansion options.”

“The numbers are really questionable as to whether or not there is a congestion issue,” said Nick DeMarsh, volunteer organizer for the Milwaukee Transit Riders Union. “Certainly, the Milwaukee region is one of the better regions in the country as far as commute times. It seems like WisDOT tends to cherry-pick data to bolster its claims of widening freeways, and then we get these overbuilt freeways.”

“WisDOT is saying these dollars (for highway expansion) spur economic development,” said Montavius Jones, co-host of the NEWaukee-produced Urban Spaceship podcast, and a transit advocate in Milwaukee. “The question is, for whom? This is a project that benefits people who don’t live in Milwaukee, and the project itself benefits people who don’t live in Milwaukee. (At a public meeting), we asked WisDOT, could you tell us any example of when a highway expansion project spurred economic development in the community where the highway was shot through? Of course the answer is no, that’s why they couldn’t answer us.”

The distrust of the Department of Transportation has remained unchanged as one iteration of the I-94 expansion has evolved into the next and the gubernatorial administration overseeing the department has changed hands.

ENVIRONMENTAL, RACIAL JUSTICE GROUPS “DISAPPOINTED,” “SURPRISED” BY TONY EVERS’ SUPPORT FOR HIGHWAY EXPANSION

While Tony Evers’ victory against Scott Walker in 2018 ushered in a significant shift in state politics, WisDOT’s push to expand I-94 has become a constant. Governors from both parties have now proposed widening this stretch of highway. 

Under the former governor, WisDOT also eyed expanding the East-West corridor of I-94, but with a proposal that at one point included plans for a double-decker freeway. That eventually became a more traditional expansion proposal before the Walker administration scrapped the plan entirely in October 2017, citing a lack of funding

But in July 2020, Gov. Tony Evers revived the highway widening proposal.

Those opposing expansion were surprised, disappointed, and upset with the Democratic governor for bringing back the Walker-era project.

“This proposal is in direct opposition to (Evers’) commitments on climate action and fighting against racial injustice,” said Cain. “You can take two steps forward with actions throughout the state to accomplish those goals, and this project takes you three steps back.”

“As they settled in, this administration really became more bold insofar as targeting two primary issues -- climate change and racial equity,” said DeMarsh. “This proposal to expand the freeway flies in the face of both of those goals. WisDOT was sued for civil rights and environmental justice issues in relation to the Zoo interchange.”

The proposed project returned last summer, and this year, the governor put the funding mechanism to get the project underway into his biennial budget -- right at a time when federal policy on transportation was beginning to shift. 

“It was very disappointing to see it included in (Evers’) budget,” said May. “Not only is it out of step with what local politicians are thinking, but now it’s out of step with federal policy as well, with Joe Biden talking about the need to expand transit, and Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, saying we need to be much more critical about highway expansion projects and think about who’s been impacted” 

“I think it’s important to know that the President and the new Secretary of Transportation are shifting away from car culture,” said Schuldt. “I am not sure why Tony Evers wants to slap Joe Biden in the face.”

A common theme among expansion opponents as it pertains to Evers backing this project is that it is at odds with the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change. In the Task Force’s December 2020 report, highways are referred to as “environmentally harmful infrastructure.”

The Bike Fed was among the contributors to that report, and provided information on the “detriment of highway expansion and the need to readdress safe streets policies that provide more infrastructure choices for the state of Wisconsin,” said Givens.

“So when we heard that the governor was in support of (the expansion), we thought that this was a real shock, considering we had just received a report from the Task Force recommending all of these things, all of these climate action measures that are really the opposite of what he’s asserted here.”

“To see this project come out of the governor’s office and have it be wholly inconsistent with the climate change goals that he has stated is a priority is very disappointing,” said May, who with 1000 Friends also participated in the Task Force.

The four primary transit goals outlined by the task force are:

  • Climate and environmental justice audited transportation planning and development

  • Promote public transit and green public transportation 

  • Support hybrid-electric vehicles, electric vehicles, and infrastructure

  • Safe, clean, and complete streets 

“A highway expansion is out of line with Governor Evers’ own climate task force,” said Jones. “Someone has to take this to Tony Evers’ door to say, if you do this, you're going to have some issues with Milwaukee come re-election time.”

The question of whether or not Evers has done enough for Milwaukee will be one to watch during his re-election campaign. The state spent nearly a decade under a Republican governor and Democrats have only controlled the state legislature for two of the last 30 years, so even divided government in Madison brings rosier prospects for the Democratic stronghold that is the state’s largest, most diverse city. But in a state as evenly politically divided as Wisconsin, those years with any power in the state capital can be fleeting, and it’s not unrealistic to see a scenario where the state is back in full Republican control by 2023 -- and this group of Wisconsin Republicans has been particularly hostile towards Milwaukee. There’s only so much time for Democratic control of the governor’s mansion to make a difference for Milwaukee. The clock is ticking for Evers, and this highway expansion will be an important issue, and a tricky one to navigate if support for it doesn’t materialize in the city. 

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THE DEMOCRATIC REPRESENTATIVE WHO OPPOSES EXPANSION IN HIS OWN DISTRICT

Despite being from the same party, State Rep. Daniel Riemer of Milwaukee strongly disagrees with the Evers on this issue, and says the governor has not been doing enough to support the city. 

What makes Riemer’s opposition particularly notable on this issue is that much of the expansion and reconstruction would be occurring within the boundaries of the legislative district he represents. The entirety of the stadium interchange is located in his district

“I represent most of (the project),” he said. “It’s hard to see how all the pieces fit together. It’s so bad. It’s such a bad idea. It’s such a bad idea. And once you do it, it just feeds the logic of continuing to expand freeways through the city.”

Riemer is wholly opposed to expanding freeways within cities, saying it has “led to the destruction of homes, neighborhoods, businesses, and a lot of the economic, social, cultural life in America.”

“(Freeways) have historically been and continue to be really damaging to urban areas,” he said. “It destroys business and then it’s just a dead zone next to which businesses and residences can’t grow and develop. Then it creates this effect of sucking value away from the cities by making it possible for people to live and work further and further away, rather than creating what would probably occur without them which is the natural concentration of economic life in and around an urban area. (Highway expansion) just kills that.”

What would be better for his district, he said, is to fix and improve the streets and infrastructure network on the local level and promote development by promoting the “economic, social and cultural value” of an urban street grid. 

“Urban streets are effective because they allow for car traffic, for bus traffic, for pedestrian traffic, bike traffic, increasingly, and they’re integrated pretty naturally into lots of different business, cultural and residential ways of doing things,” he said. “You can really only do one thing on a freeway, which is drive...A stretch of freeway, there’s just no life along it. ” 

While Evers has billed this project as one that will create jobs, Riemer said “there’s just as many jobs if you spend the money on a different infrastructure project” or on different streets. And according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, more than half of city streets in Milwaukee are rated in poor or fair condition, making it so the City needs an average of $76 million per year to repair streets and bridges.

Other streets running parallel to I-94 — State Street, Highland Avenue, Vliet Street, North Avenue, National Avenue, Greenfield Avenue, etc. — could serve as those added lanes, so to speak, Riemer noted.

Fixing and improving the streets and road system “would be better for Milwaukee,” he said. “That’s better for the local economy. It’s better for the tax base. You can’t build a residence or a business in the shoulder lane of an expanded freeway. They don’t pay property taxes. They don’t do anything to support police, fire, public safety and local health programs.”

Like many others opposing this project, Riemer was surprised that Evers put it in the budget. 

“If (Tony Evers) is saying things about climate change, saying things about the importance of racial equity, if he’s saying things about why Milwaukee is an important part of the state, he should walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” said Riemer. “Doing this is at odds with those things that he’s talked about. Maybe he was just paying lip service to those ideas and didn’t really want to back them up with policy. Expanding I-94 would point in that direction.”

Evers is even facing opposition to the project within his own administration. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes told WUWM’s Lake Effect that he does not support the expansion proposal, just as he had as a state representative when the previous version of the proposal existed under Walker.

“I would say personally there’s a little bit of a conflict for me,” he said in the interview. “Right now, in our push for environmental justice, that coupled with the traffic data, I can't say that I'm going to be the person who is going to be at the press conference announcing whatever comes as a result if it includes expansion. That just won’t be me. I won’t be present for that one. I still do have some of the same concerns that I had as a member of the legislature.” 

CARS AND CLIMATE CHANGE, ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, THREATS TO MILWAUKEE’S RIVERS

The big picture for the opposition from environmentalists is obvious. Climate change. Our planet is getting warmer, and we are the reason why. And cars are among the biggest reasons why.

“We know that the transportation sector is almost a third of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Steiner. “The majority, 80% or so, come from single passenger vehicles. When lanes are added to highways, almost always it induces demand to add more cars to the road. There is a direct connection between expanding highways and exacerbating the climate crisis.”

“Constant expansion is just bringing more cars on the road at a time when we need to be taking more cars off the road,” said Nenn.

Not only do cars and highways contribute to climate change on a large scale, but pollution from vehicles has a direct impact on air quality in neighborhoods in immediate proximity to a highway.

“For neighborhoods that are close to highways, that pollution can have serious impacts including asthma and other respiratory diseases and conditions related to air pollution,” said Steiner. “There have been multiple studies to show that race is a huge contributing factor to whether or not you live next to a large polluting project like a highway. There’s an environmental justice concern and an environmental racism concern related to air quality from adding more cars to an already busy highway that surrounds predominantly Black and Hispanic communities.”

“These highways don’t run through affluent communities, they run through poor communities,” said Givens. “And poor communities are often communities of color. The people who are living there, their life expectancy is greatly reduced by their literal physical proximity to the traffic that is causing the greenhouse gases.”

There are also a number of climate concerns specific to Milwaukee and the Midwest. While not a city that experiences the type of wildfires, heat waves and other natural disasters often associated with rising temperatures across the globe, the form that climate change is on track to take here is one of greater precipitation. 

“From a water perspective, 2019 and 2020 both broke rainfall records,” said Nenn. “The five wettest years have been in the last 10 years. We are experiencing these really volatile intense rain events.” 

Steiner said that across the Great Lakes region, a frequent point of discussion -- and one that was part of the Governor’s Climate Task Force Plan -- is “climate resiliency,” particularly as it pertains to infrastructure.

“We are seeing a trajectory of wetter weather, we are seeing a trajectory of more flooding, especially in places like Milwaukee that are near a great lake,” she said. “So, creating infrastructure that prioritizes water runoff and decreasing flood risks is a huge necessity, otherwise we’re going to be spending a lot of money on projects that won’t be resistant to the weather changes that we’re seeing and that are projected.”

Cain said these trends are worrisome for the Midwest, and that means now is the time to prepare our infrastructure.

“Our region is going to see more precipitation and more rainfall and more flood risk and water pollution,” she said. “That is going to be our climate crisis.”

With Milwaukee Riverkeepers, Nenn is particularly attuned to how projects like highway reconstruction will impact the city’s waterways.

And these waterways — the three rivers that form so much of the foundation of this city — have been enjoying a bit of a renaissance in recent years. People have been getting out and kayaking and using the rivers in different ways far more frequently than in years past. 

“It’s been a huge change,” she said. “It’s really wonderful to see people wanting to go back to the river and using it, and as it continues to improve, we’re going to see more and more people wanting to go out and interact with the rivers.”

River restoration work, green infrastructure, dam removals, have all impacted water quality in the region for the better. 

As Milwaukee has worked to rebrand its image, water and embracing our natural assets has been a part of that transformation. And while plans are in the works for a riverwalk on the lower Menomonee River, the runoff that inevitably comes from highways threatens that progress.

“The cumulative impacts from all of this highway construction and all of these projects happening at the same time are really significant, and challenge the progress we’ve already made and are really taking away possibilities for the future,” she said.

Any increase in the “impervious surfaces” that make up highways inevitably lead to a greater deal of polluted runoff. That’s something she saw have “massive” direct impacts on places like Honey Creek in Wauwatosa following the Zoo Interchange project. Now, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District (MMSD) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are planning a $14 million restoration at Honey Creek.

Nenn calculated that the proposed expansion of I-94 would lead to a 56-acre increase in pavement.

“More pollution, dirt, grease, oil, road salt, all of this increased runoff will go into the rivers from that,” she said, adding that already in some parts of the lower Menomonee River, “It’s not meeting federal standards for what’s considered necessary for aquatic life to live. In particular, we have some very serious impairments related to the road salt, when the water is so salty in the winter that it’s instantly toxic to aquatic life.”

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THE CONGESTION QUESTION

The congestion question, too, puzzles some skeptics of the project.

Jeremy Fojut, co-founder and chief idea officer at Newaukee, who also co-hosts the Urban Spaceship project, said businesses looking to attract people to the region have often used the city’s low commute times as a selling point.

“The consistent drumbeat of why people should move to the city of Milwaukee from organizations and companies — and even the messaging that goes out — is always around the fact that we have low commute times,” he said. “And all we hear now is that we have this huge congestion problem. That just doesn't line up.”

Michael Bradley, another Urban Spaceship co-host and transit advocate, said WisDOT’s own data shows that traffic counts have been “extremely flat” for much for the past 20 years. 

“You take a look at our region and the types of traffic that we experience and it’s in the bottom 10% of metro areas in North America for traffic,” he said. 

Lester Williams of MICAH said the highways really only sees major traffic issues during large events.

“I-94 gets jammed up when there are Brewers games, when there’s basketball games, when there’s something going on downtown like Summerfest, that’s the only time it gets jammed up,” he said. “You go on 94 now, it’s not jammed up.”

But even if commute times and overwhelming traffic slowdowns were a major concern in the region, there are other options, Jones added, that would more effectively address congestion -- namely, transit.

“We have all these other alternatives that will achieve the same objective that the highway expansion is trying to achieve, which is lowering congestion -- getting people off the highway or having less people on the highway,” he said. “If we want less people to be on the highway to reduce congestion there are other alternatives that are more equitable, better for the environment and better for their budgets.”

Further scrambling concerns over congestion coming from WisDOT is the impact of the pandemic on remote work. While many businesses are moving past the pandemic to bring people into offices again, that won’t be the case across the board. Traffic data from 2020 and the early part of 2021 will be hard to use to gauge what’s truly needed, and looking forward, it will be difficult to ascertain the extent to which some remote work will continue to take place. 

Dennis Grzezinski, an environmental justice lawyer who represented MICAH and the Black Health Coalition when they sued WisDOT over the Zoo Interchange project, was in disbelief over the way the department was using pandemic-year data to examine what was next for the 3.5-mile stretch of I-94.

“I had to smack my forehead with the palm of my hand because they’re talking about investing $1 billion rebuilding and adding lanes and another fancy huge interchange at the stadium interchange -- which is already fancy and huge and not all that old -- on the basis of projections that they are apparently making now while acknowledging they don’t have an understanding or clear idea of what changes are going to be because of this pandemic moving forward,” he said. “If I was sitting in a chair, I think I would have fallen out of the chair...It was the clearest demonstration that it’s either an incredible level of incompetence, or -- and I don't know which is worse -- or a deliberate mode of decision-making that intentionally ignores facts and reality to reach whatever the pre-selected goal is.”

ARE LAWSUITS THE ONLY WAY THE STATE FUNDS TRANSIT IN MILWAUKEE?

Grzezinski, who’s been called “The Man Who Beat the Highway Lobby” for his efforts on the Zoo Interchange and the previous iterations of the I-94 project, is again working with the opposition coalition. 

He says that his previous work was not only successful in winning a settlement that funded the JobLines bus routes, but also changed the way WisDOT had to operate. 

“The $13.5 million for bus routes was, in practical terms, a major outcome of the case,” he said. “But equally important and maybe even more important than the short-term return of some connections between the two counties via public transit was a clear legal statement that the agency needs to take a different approach to evaluating what the impacts of spending billions and billions and billions — and that’s not an overstatement on highway rebuilding and expansion projects — while the funding for public transit on which people of color, low-income people, people with disabilities are disproportionately dependent are languishing. The state of public transit in this part of the state and throughout the state has been, at best, stable, and generally declining in the last 15-20 years.”

Among transit advocates, there’s a sense that the only way to get any kind of funding for public transit in Wisconsin is through litigation — as was the case with the Zoo Interchange and the subsequent JobLines project. The state legislature has not been forthcoming with transit dollars at the state level, and just slashed public transit funding in half for Milwaukee and Madison specifically with its latest action on the state budget. Milwaukee County had to eliminate several bus lines in 2019 due to budget constraints over declining shared revenue and a lack of local control options

The bus system in Milwaukee wasn’t always in decline and scrounging for financial scraps.

“At the turn of the century, we still had a quite decent bus system,” said Grzezinski. “Now, we have a bus system but it’s tatters of what it used to be.”

Nick DeMarsh of the Transit Riders Union points out that “in our not too distant past, Milwaukee County was recognized as an outstanding transit system by the (American Public Transportation Association),” when it was honored as the Best Transit System in the nation for a second time in 1999. “It was deserved recognition.”

“It’s important to recognize that not only do other cities provide a good model for what we can be, it’s as simple as looking to our own city not too long ago -- and not coincidentally, just prior to when (Scott) Walker became County Executive,” he said. Walker became County Executive in 2002. 

Givens notes that transit ridership has seen a “40% decrease since the mid-2000s,” but unlike other cities, Milwaukee is not able to tax itself to invest in transit. 

“It really does come down to political will,” she said.

If and when state and local leaders do put new funding toward transit service, DeMarsh said it’s “important to see it as restoring and not adding.”

“We have a long way to go before we ever add service,” he said. “Any investment in transit between now and when we can get to a level of service where we were in 1999, that’s all going to be restoring. Arguably, to grow our transit system, we need to double our transit service in our county and in our region. And that only gets our head above water. We’re so deep in the water that we don’t realize it anymore. And not too long ago we were standing on land with good transit service.”

Investing in transit gets back to the equity equation involved in all of this. We know Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country. We know the Milwaukee metro region is among the most unequal. And we know there are greater proportions of people of color who use public transit, where disinvestment is happening.

Have we arrived at a different moment in that larger discussion?

“Given our racial climate and talk about racial equity that’s going on, I do think this could be a turning point,” said Jones. “This is, at the end of the day, an equity issue.”


As with any major project like this, the answers are never as simple as a “yes” or “no” to whether or not it gets done. There are a myriad of factors involved, which we’ll explore in the next part of The Recombobulation Area’s I-94 Project.

Coming soon: Part II: Where the rubber meets the road


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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.


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