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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

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WisDOT closes public comment period for controversial I-94 ‘East-West Corridor’ expansion

The expansion has faced widespread backlash from a coalition of social and environmental advocacy groups.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) closed the online public comment period Tuesday for the controversial expansion of Milwaukee’s I-94 “East-West Corridor,” a heavily used commuter road commonly used by drivers entering downtown Milwaukee from Madison.

The current plan, announced in a 2022 WisDOT newsletter, would expand the roadway to eight lanes and implement a “diverging diamond” design for the Stadium Interchange between I-94 and STH-175 near American Family Field.

The planned rebuilding of the freeway expressway was first announced in 2012 and, according to a 2014 public hearing handout, was initially slated to commence construction in 2019. The current plan is set to begin construction in 2026 and last for four years.

The I-94 project comment period was previously extended by two weeks. “Extending this comment period ensures all voices are heard as we work with stakeholders to minimize any impacts to the community,” said WisDOT Secretary Craig Thompson when announcing the extension on Jan. 3.

Opponents of the plan have united to form the “Coalition for More Responsible Transportation,” which includes the Wisconsin ACLU, the Sierra Club and the Milwaukee Riverkeepers. In a 105-page Jan. 31 press release, the coalition argued that more lanes would cause increased pollution and sewage overflow issues.

The coalition also criticized the expansion of the freeway claiming it is used more by white commuters. In comparison, they said, public transit is not slated for expansion under WisDOT's plan.

“While freeways expand at a taxpayer cost of billions and billions of dollars, the transportation system upon which persons of color disproportionately depend languishes,” the coalition said in the press release.

The group supports an alternative plan which proposes the use of only six lanes. The plan, called “Fix at Six,” hopes to address freeway congestion issues by adding a new rapid transit bus line and promoting bicycle infrastructure while still repairing the existing expressway as needed. 

WisDOT rejected the six lane plan in a June 2022 press release after a 2016 study found it would “not accommodate future traffic volumes at an acceptable level of service in 2040.” The advocacy coalition, however, claimed the study’s analysis was insufficient because it did not consider transit-oriented alternatives.

“The agencies entirely failed to evaluate an alternative that does not expand capacity, that rebuilds and makes focused improvements to the existing roadway, and that increases transit, would meet the purpose and need of the project,” the coalition wrote in a Jan. 31 statement to WisDOT.

Originally constructed in the 1960s, the I-94 East-West Freeway corridor is an arterial highway in the Milwaukee metro area and an integral piece of Wisconsin’s “backbone” highway network. The current highway suffers from “congestion and [an] outdated design,” and it has a crash rate greater than the statewide average for urban freeways, according to WisDOT.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Peter Burgelis agrees highway reconstruction is “overdue, necessary and will spur thousands of local, family-supporting union jobs.” But Burgelis, who sits on the Milwaukee County Board’s Committee on Transportation and Transit and represents a district encompassing much of the freeway reconstruction project, feels the six lane option better serves his constituents.

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“The six lane option will best preserve quality of life for surrounding neighborhoods,” Burgelis said in a November statement. “The six lane design combined with permanent transit investments will best serve the transportation needs of all of Milwaukee County.”

Burgelis proposed a resolution in support of the six lane option, which the committee advanced to the county board by a 3-1 vote in late November. The board eventually voted 8-9 against the resolution’s adoption in December.

Comments submitted prior to Jan. 31 will be addressed by WisDOT and the Federal Highway Administration as the project’s next stages begin, according to the WisDOT webpage.

However, activists like Sierra Club Wisconsin Chapter director Elizabeth Ward feel the project needs to take a step back and address community concerns before moving forward. 

“This proposal will increase water and climate pollution, health problems, racial disparities and more,” Ward said in a November statement. “WisDOT needs to go back to the drawing board and move forward with a Fix at Six solution.”

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