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I-94 Expansion Won’t Help Milwaukee

Mass transit is ignored in favor of freeways

Apr. 30, 2008
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How badly will Milwaukeeans be penalized by an expanded freeway that might not be necessary? The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Highway Administration have recommended a $1.9 billion plan to expand I-94 from the state line through Kenosha and Racine counties to the Mitchell Interchange in Milwaukee County, saying that more vehicles on the road require more lanes of freeway.

The DOT plans to add a new northbound lane and southbound lane to I-94, make some safety improvements, add a full 27th Street interchange at Elm Road, eliminate part of the interchange at the current 27th street ramp and add a Drexel Avenue interchange.

The DOT argues that the construction and additional vehicles on the road would not harm air quality. It also admitted that commuting times would be shortened by a mere 10 minutes at most during rush hour, despite the additional lane. But the so-called improvements would hit Milwaukee hard and force commuters around the region to rely on cars in the coming decades, instead of mass transit.

Attorney Dennis Grzezinski, who has analyzed the DOT’s Environmental Impact Statement, found that Milwaukee residents would bear the brunt of the project’s downside while reaping few of its benefits. And all commuters would be negatively impacted in the long term by relying on cars while gas prices are at an all-time high of $3.75 and the area’s air quality is unsatisfactory.

“The DOT’s whole approach to how we move people and goods around for the next 30 to 50 years just reflects a total disconnect with everything that’s happening around us,” Grzezinski said. The DOT did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment for this article.

Impact on Milwaukee
The DOT is planning for the additional lanes in Milwaukee even though the city, Milwaukee Public Schools, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other entities have gone on record advocating for expanded lanes everywhere but the city of Milwaukee.

Yet the DOT’s I-94 Web page only includes positive comments from supporters, such as DOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi, Franklin Mayor Tom Taylor and Jaime Maliszewski of the Airport Gateway Business Association. Grzezinski said he was a little surprised that the DOT did not consider the widen-everywhere-but-Milwaukee alternative, even though the DNR specifically asked the DOT to analyze it.

“There was not a word about it in the report,” Grzezinski said. “Not a word.” Grzezinski said that few Milwaukee commuters would have shortened travel times because of the added lanes, because city workers already live near Downtown and city streets provide alternative routes during peak travel times.

But he said that the additional lanes within the city would have a negative impact on residents’ health and well-being, simply because many schools, businesses and residents are located so close to the freeway. In contrast, Grzezinski’s analysis found, Racine and Kenosha have far fewer businesses and residents located close to the I-94 corridor—although the new interchanges would likely spur more development outside of Milwaukee.

“When you get into Milwaukee County and then into the city, it’s jam-packed right now,” Grzezinski said. “That’s where people are living in large numbers right smack dab against the highway, where schools and playgrounds and people’s bedrooms are.”

Grzezinski said the project would have an adverse effect on the environment because it would add up to 50% more concrete to the existing highway in Milwaukee County. That would increase the probability of storm-water runoff and flooding during heavy rains.

“It’s a really massive increase in surfaces that don’t retain water,” Grzezinski said. A 2007 study from the Sightline Institute found that each new mile of urban highway increases carbon dioxide emissions by more than 100,000 tons over its lifetime. Since the I-94 project would add 76 miles of new lanes, Grzezinski said 7.6 million tons of carbon dioxide would be released into our air.

Yet the area is currently not complying with ozone regulations and new standards for fine particles that are mostly emitted from diesel engines. Grzezinski said the Environmental Protection Agency could halt federal highway funds if Wisconsin does not come into compliance with air quality standards.

Grzezinski said the DOT’s plan is too expensive and not farsighted enough to encompass the region’s needs in the next 30 years. He and others would like the $200 million that would be spent on an extra lane to instead be used on mass transit options.

“One would think that in a slightly rational world that the last thing that we would be doing is accelerating decisions to invest more and more of our limited capital and resources and adding to and extending an incredibly inefficient transportation system that serves only those who have the means to buy expensive fossil-fuelguzzling vehicles,” Grzezinski said.

Mass Transit and Milwaukee’s Concerns Ignored
But perhaps most frustrating is the DOT’s refusal to consider mass transit options while planning its $1.9 billion expansion of the freeway. City leaders have stressed the importance of adding mass transit options instead of or in addition to extra freeway capacity, as has the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

“We feel that they [the DOT] should have been looking at mass transit alternatives that might have been able to be implemented either in combination with freeway work or as an alternative in its entirety,” said Jeffrey Polenske, Milwaukee’s city engineer.

A fitting alternative would be the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line, which would run parallel to the I-94 corridor and ease congestion during rush hours. Polenske said it was “frustrating” that the KRM, which he called a “great project,” got stalled while regional leaders could not agree on a funding source, while the I-94 project, to be built with state and federal funds, will most likely get the green light. DOT Secretary Busalacchi and Gov. Jim Doyle have done nothing to break the stalemate among those who support and oppose the KRM while the freeway expansion and other road projects have been prioritized.

“Something has to change if we are truly going to have this balanced approach to transportation, and the strategy that we have to move these projects forward has to change as well,” Polenske said. Last week, Polenske and Milwaukee Department of Public Works (DPW) Commissioner Jeffrey Mantes warned in a letter to the state DOT that the upcoming study of improvements to the Zoo Interchange must include plans for mass transit.

“It is DPW’s goal that [the] West Allis Line corridor, which runs under the south leg of the Zoo Interchange, be preserved for potential future express or rapid transit routes as well as an important link in the regional bike trail network,” the April 24 letter states.

The public can comment on the DOT’s I-94 plan through May 5 by e-mailing dotsefreeways94nsc@dot.state.wi.us or calling the project hotline at 262-548-8721.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.



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