With nearly 21,000 businesses and 310,000 jobs located within a 5-mile radius of its center, and countless others in metro Milwaukee, Waukesha County and around the state who also rely on the highway for the safe transit of their employees, customers and products, the I-94 East-West corridor is a main artery for Wisconsin commerce. But its age and increasing deterioration are creating significant congestion, safety and economic development challenges that must be addressed.
According to the Final Environmental Impact Statement on the project developed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), reconstruction and modernization of the East-West corridor – including rebuilding the freeway and bridges; modifying interchange access to improve safety and traffic flow; and reconstructing local streets affected by the freeway reconstruction would accomplish the following:
Total cost is estimated at $1.1 billion in construction year dollars (assumes a 2021 start date). However, Wisconsin’s failure to enumerate the project in the budget and the Federal Highway Administration rescinding the Record of Decision, at the request of WisDOT, means a delay of unknown duration. This delay will have negative results, including increased overall costs due to inflation and the possible waste of roughly $20 million the state has already invested in planning, environmental study and early engineering work that may need to be redone. Additionally, delay will make necessary a highly disruptive, $40 million-plus “Band-Aid” resurfacing in the near future that would accomplish nothing beyond just keeping the road in operating condition until a long-term solution is finalized.
WisDOT looked closely at the resurfacing option and had this to say about its analysis in the Final Environmental Impact Statement: “In general, each highway resurfacing has a shorter life span than the previous resurfacing because the original pavement, still in place after 50 years, provides a less effective base as the concrete continues to crack and deteriorate…Based on WisDOT’s experience with other highways, resurfacing the study area freeway system again would not be cost effective.”
The East-West corridor has been resurfaced numerous times over its 50-plus-year life, most recently in 2011-12. But at this point, it’s a “Band-Aid” approach that would do nothing to solve the underlying safety, capacity and traffic-handling problems.
Recent data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation and others confirms that vehicle miles traveled is once again on the rise – and in fact has reached record highs – after dipping during the recession of the mid-2000s. The contention that “millennials” no longer want to own cars or don’t like freeways has also been disproven by several recent studies.
Nonetheless, transit is an important component of an effective regional transportation system – it’s just not an “either-or” proposition. The Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) has determined that even if transit offerings were to increase 100 percent, it wouldn’t be enough to effectively address traffic congestion on the East-West corridor. The solution is a robust transit element in conjunction with required capacity and safety improvements to the freeway.
The freeway and transit projects are complementary, and both are important to increasing safety, reducing congestion and promoting economic development in the region.
While the corridor is an important link between Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, well over half of freeway traffic between 16th and 70th streets enters or leaves the freeway within the congested 3.5-mile segment. That includes veterans and military personnel heading to the VA hospital, workers at some of the area’s largest employers, fans heading to Miller Park and other attractions and more. Additionally, a 2014 report by SEWRPC found that the plan would directly serve areas of minority and low-income populations, which would benefit from the related improvements to city streets and highway accessibility to employment. SEWRPC reports that 45 percent of trips on the corridor are from areas with a minority or low-income population, greater than the regional average.
WisDOT and FHWA engaged in an extensive and diligent process to analyze and evaluate a number of design options for the project. The process involved numerous opportunities for public comment, including public information meetings, public hearings, individual stakeholder meetings, a public comment period, frequent communication through e-newsletters and more.
As a result of this process, the agencies have identified a preferred alternative that cut well over $200 million off total project cost and includes essential safety and efficiency upgrades, as well as a neighborhood-sensitive design that avoids nearby homes, businesses, cemeteries and the national historic landmark associated with the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center.
Support for the recommended alternative, as documented in the hearing transcripts and Final EIS, was significant including support from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
The more time that elapses after the rescinding of the project’s Record of Decision, the more likely a re-study of the corridor will be necessary, seriously jeopardizing the consensus built among a broad range of stakeholders who participated during the EIS process.
East-West reconstruction is essential to the completion and success of the state’s $2.5 billion investment in the Zoo and Marquette interchange projects. Completing the corridor, which links the two interchanges together, is necessary to fully realize all the safety features, reduced congestion and operational efficiencies included in both the Marquette and Zoo interchange projects. Without the East-West corridor project, neither interchange will operate at its intended level of efficiency. That diminishes the economic benefits that could be derived from improved mobility and crash reductions (when finished, crashes in the Marquette Interchange dropped 50 percent from prior levels), improved travel times and efficiencies for all users of the regional freeway system.
The costs of delay are significant: