Why is this project necessary?

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:

  • Maintain a key link in the local, state and national transportation network.
  • Address the obsolete design of the corridor to improve safety and decrease crashes.
  • Replace deteriorating pavement.
  • Accommodate existing and future traffic volumes at an acceptable level of service.

What will it cost?

Total cost is estimated at $1.1 billion in construction year dollars (best-case 2021 start date) – but that’s only if the project continues to move forward. Failure to enumerate the project in the 2017-19 budget will create delays of two years or more. Those delays will have negative results, including increased overall costs due to inflation and the waste of roughly $20 million the state has already invested in planning, environmental study and early engineering work that would need to be redone if the effort is stalled. Additionally, delay would make necessary a highly disruptive, $60 million-plus “Band-Aid” resurfacing in 2020 that would accomplish nothing beyond just keeping the road in operating condition until a long-term solution is finalized.

Why can’t we just resurface the road?

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 was built in 1963 and its physical condition has deteriorated to the point where it has now reached the end of its useful life. The pavement can no longer be rehabilitated; a complete pavement removal and replacement is required. Even then, while resurfacing would restore the road’s smooth riding surface, it would not address the cracks in the concrete or the voids in the underlying gravel base. And it would not address the outdated design elements – left-side ramps, narrow shoulders, short weaving distances and more – that are failing to provide safe operating conditions for today’s cars, buses and large trucks.

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.

Why focus on the highway at all? Some say people aren’t driving as much as they used to – wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in transit?

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.

How does the project benefit the City and its residents, especially low-income residents?

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.

How was the preferred alternative determined?

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.

How will this project complement recent work on the Zoo and Marquette interchanges?

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 of 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.

What will happen if Wisconsin doesn’t keep this project moving forward by reinstating funding in the 2017-19 budget?

The costs of delay are significant:

  • Even with just a two-year delay, project costs will grow by millions, with initial estimates indicating an increased project budget of $44-$60 million due to inflation alone.
  • The benefits of the upgrades in the Marquette Interchange and the Zoo Interchange are being wasted if they are connected by 3.5 miles of crumbling and unsafe freeway. They will only work as well as intended if the primary freeway connecting them is equally efficient and safe.
  • Delay hurts economic development in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties and impairs the region’s efforts to grow. A good transportation network is key to economic growth and job creation and consistently ranks as a top issue among business executives determining desirable locations for commercial investment.
  • Delays would throw away over $20 million already invested in planning, environmental study and clearance, and early engineering work that can only be used if the project moves forward now. Further delays could endanger the federal government’s 2016 approval of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Record of Decision, and seriously affect the consensus built amongst a broad cross-section of stakeholders who support the project.
  • Delays will likely require a $60 million-plus resurfacing just to keep the corridor operational while a long-term solution is finalized. The “Band-Aid” resurfacing would take two years and require lane closures throughout the corridor, in both directions. It would be extremely disruptive to traffic and surrounding neighborhoods and increase costs without solving the underlying safety and traffic-handling problems.
  • Freeway congestion and unsafe conditions will continue to hamper travel for the 1 million veterans, military patients and volunteers annually who rely on the highway for access to the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center. Additionally, the VA’s cooperative arrangement with the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center north of the Zoo Interchange requires frequent emergency, patient and employee travel between both facilities that will also be impacted.
  • Communities and neighborhoods in and around the area will be forced to suffer additional traffic diversions onto their local streets as travelers avoid I-94 for more and more hours each day.