Does Milwaukee Want To Widen I-94? Introducing the 'Expanding the Divide' Series
Introducing "Expanding the Divide," a multi-part series on the proposed expansion of the 3.5-mile East-West corridor of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee.
When Lester Williams arrived at his stop on his way to work, he didn’t expect to be looking up at his own face on the side of the bus.
A new bus route called JobLines was launching in the Milwaukee metro area, and Williams was hired to do some modeling to help promote the initiative. Soon enough, and to his surprise, his face was everywhere.
“I did not know that my face would be all over Milwaukee,” he said. “I just thought ‘hey, I’ll take a picture, it’ll be in a magazine or two, be on a poster saying, ‘New Routes, New Moves,’ but my face was all over Milwaukee, all over Wisconsin.”
The goal of JobLines was to offer a new way to commute to the suburbs, helping connect Milwaukee residents like Williams to jobs at business centers, commercial corridors, and industrial parks in cities like Brookfield, Germantown, Menomonee Falls and New Berlin. But this program wasn’t formed out of a piece of public policy or through legislation or funding at the state or local level, but by way of a lawsuit.
In 2012, a coalition led by the Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Wisconsin Department of Transportation over the multi-billion reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange, saying it discriminated against disadvantaged minorities in the majority-minority city of Milwaukee and contributed to racial and economic segregation in a metro area often referred to as the nation’s most segregated. Central to the lawsuit was the claim that the project did not include public transit improvements.
The coalition won, making the largest public works project in the history of the state one a court ruled to be racially discriminatory. The state of Wisconsin paid a $13.5 million settlement.
The Black Health Coalition and MICAH put the vast majority of the settlement money toward the creation of JobLines. Two of these bus routes provided service to nearly 700 employers in the region, and the majority of passengers were Black residents of low to moderate income areas of the city’s west side, a 2018 UWM study found. Combined, the routes delivered about 1,000 rides per day.
Williams was among those passengers. He rode the JobLines route to SCI in New Berlin where he worked as a quality control inspector.
“That was one of my favorite jobs,” he said. “The bus stop was right across the street from the job. I would get up in the evening — I worked third shift, 12-hour shifts, and I had to be there at 7 at night. I would leave at about 5:50. It was a decent ride. The bus would run every 40 minutes. I got out there on time; I made it home on time.”
But there was an end-point to JobLines. The settlement funded just four years of the project, through 2018. Milwaukee County funded one of the two routes for an additional year, but no longer. Its last rides rolled through the region in August 2019.
When Route 6 stopped going to New Berlin, Williams had to start looking for work again. The face of the JobLines program was out of a job.
“I wasn’t fired,” he said. “I had to quit. There was no way for me to get out there every day.”
Williams soon was able to find a new job, but his experience riding the route stuck with him.
“I got a chance to ride up the Bluemound area,” he said. “Just to see the difference, leaving one side of town and going to the other side of town, just to see the quality of living, it’s right there in front of your face. Certain people did not want a lot of (African American people1) out in the suburbs.”
The racial component of the region’s transportation struggles, he said, is key to this larger conversation.
There’s a major difference between who lives in Milwaukee and who works in Milwaukee, 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.
“According to the latest data in 2017, you have about 66,000 white people who live in Milwaukee County suburbs or exurbs in Washington, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties who literally drive into Milwaukee to work every day,” he said. “At the same time, you have about 32,000 Blacks and about 9,000 Hispanics moving the opposite direction. They’re leaving the city to go to the suburbs and exurbs to work and whites are coming into the city to work. Then, at the end of the day, they reverse courses. Whites leave the city where they made the money and they go spend money in the suburbs and exurbs, spend property taxes there. Milwaukee really struggles with that.”
Jackson says this creates a “spatial mismatch” in the region.
“As a result of that movement, whites are only about 36% of the population in Milwaukee but they have 71% of the jobs in Milwaukee. Blacks are about 39% of the population of Milwaukee and they only have about 21% of the jobs in the city. Hispanics are about 18.5% of the population and they have a little more than 9% of jobs in Milwaukee. What you have is a city that’s 64% people of color and 71% of the jobs in the city are held by white people, and very many of them don't live in the city of Milwaukee.”
Race is a central piece of the region’s very real employment disconnect.
“You have so many people (in Milwaukee) who are looking for jobs,” said Williams, who is now the Chair of MICAH’s Transportation Task Force. “And there are jobs out there. There’s no transportation.”
The proposed expansion of Interstate 94 connects to so many of the issues that Milwaukee grapples with over and over and over. Issues of segregation. Of racial inequity. Of inequality. Of simmering tension between the city and the suburbs. Of environmental justice. Of local control. Of economic mobility. Of a changing climate. Of infrastructure. Of priorities.
The Milwaukee area has seen so many highway reconstruction projects and re-done interchanges in the 21st Century that a Politico magazine feature story on the city’s “addiction to megahighways” spawned the headline “Overpasses: A love story.”
Orange barrels have been an ever-present fixture on southeastern Wisconsin’s highways for what seems like forever. As work still continues on the Zoo Interchange — the project is now expected to finish in 2023 — the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has revived the proposal to expand the 3.5-mile stretch of the East-West corridor of I-94 from 16th St. to 70th St., from six lanes to eight and reconstruct the stadium interchange linked to Wisconsin Highway 175.
“There are jobs out there. There’s no transportation.”
- Lester Williams
And as has been the case each time a massive highway proposal has been put on the drawing board for the Milwaukee area, a coalition is again mounting in its opposition.
We have arrived at a juncture where this opposition at this moment warrants greater examination.
The winds surrounding highway mega-projects are shifting. Perhaps there’s no greater signifier of that shift making its way to the highest levels of government than what Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has been saying.
“Black and brown neighborhoods have been disproportionately divided by highway projects or left isolated by the lack of adequate transit and transportation resources,” he tweeted in late December, setting the stage for how he’d plan to run the department. “In the Biden-Harris administration, we will make righting these wrongs an imperative.”
In a recent interview with The Grio’s April Ryan, Buttigieg made headlines saying, “There is racism physically built into some of our highways,” and pointed to the Biden Administration’s massive infrastructure proposal as a way to address the ways transportation infrastructure has historically “divided this country.”
In March, the federal government hit pause on the expansion of Interstate 45 in Houston, Tex., which to highway expansion opponents signified a real shift not only in words, but in practice under the new administration. Among projects identified by Bloomberg’s CityLab as one that could see a similar fate? The I-94 expansion in Milwaukee.
While federal officials are beginning to show signs of rethinking highway and transportation policy, that’s certainly not happening at the state level in Wisconsin. Despite being constantly at odds on policies across the board, Gov. Tony Evers and legislative Republicans have agreed on expanding I-94. Evers revived the project last year, proposed it in his budget, and the Republicans running the powerful Joint Finance Committee approved the proposal — while cutting state funding for transit in Milwaukee — in committee on June 8.
So, at this crucial moment for this project — and for infrastructure in America, more broadly — what do highway expansion opponents in Milwaukee and Wisconsin have to say?
To find out, I conducted more than a dozen interviews at length with people opposed to the highway expansion. That’s what you’ll see in Part I of this multi-part story on the proposed expansion.
While much of this conversation centers around this one proposed project, this issue speaks to something larger about Milwaukee, and about Wisconsin, and about how this region might take shape.
What do we want our future to look like? How might the challenges of the next 50 years inform our decision-making on this massive project poised to set in concrete the form our future will take in the decades to come? What do we really want to be doing with a billion dollars when it comes to transportation infrastructure in Milwaukee at this moment?
Read Part I of Expanding the Divide:
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.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
In his interview, Williams used the term “Balalian” instead of “Black” or “African American.” Here’s what he said: “What I mean by Balalian is Black people. Black is a color; we’re not crayons. Balalian is another word used, my grandma taught me this.”