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WisDOT tries again for I-94 East-West expansion (UPDATE)

Cars travel a stretch of Interstate 94 west of downtown Milwaukee in 2011. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Cars travel a stretch of Interstate 94 west of downtown Milwaukee in 2011. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation will seek federal approval to overhaul the stretch of highway. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation will once again seek federal approval to overhaul a stretch of Interstate 94 west of downtown Milwaukee after the department had effectively dropped the project in 2017 under former Gov. Scott Walker.

Gov. Tony Evers’ office announced Wednesday that WisDOT will pursue plans to rebuild a 3.5-mile stretch of the highway from 70th St. to 16th St. to provide safer conditions and lessen congestion. The 60-year-old stretch of highway sits between the recently completed Marquette Interchange and the nearly finished Zoo Interchange.

“It would cost about half a billion dollars to rebuild the corridor in its current form and the end product would be nearly as congested and dangerous as before,” WisDOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson said in a statement. “With the Marquette Interchange complete and the Zoo Interchange nearly completed, the East-West corridor would just become a bottleneck between them.”

State officials say rebuilding I-94 could ultimately create between 6,000 and 10,000 jobs and would save lives. The stretch of interstate has a crash rate that’s two-and-a-half times the statewide average, according to WisDOT.

This is the second time state officials will be seeking an essential environmental review for the nearly $1 billion project. The first review was rescinded in 2017 when lawmakers said they wouldn’t include additional money for the project in the state budget.

Former Gov. Walker ultimately asked the Federal Highway Administration to pull support for the project after the agency warned it would withdraw its approval because of the state budget’s lack of funding for the project and the threat of a lawsuit over the proposed expansion.

That meant WisDOT had to start the review process anew if it still wanted to rebuild the roadway. State officials estimated the original review — officially called a Record of Decision — had cost $20 million to obtain.

Kristin McHugh, a WisDOT spokeswoman, said state officials now plan to seek a new Record of Decision for the project. WisDOT had previously planned to add a lane of traffic to each side of the 3.5-mile stretch of I-94 east-west corridor.

Rather than just readopting the old expansion plan, WisDOT said it would reassess alternatives for rebuilding the roadway before choosing a preferred option. At the same time, sate officials pledged that their preferred alternative wouldn’t make use of the so-called “double-decker” design that had drawn opposition in 2015 and would also preserve historic grave sites near the freeway in Milwaukee’s Story Hill neighborhood.

Some state lawmakers have pushed for the project in recent years even after the Legislature’s refusal to pay for it. In 2018, several Republican state representatives unsuccessfully supported a bill that would have directed WisDOT to pursue the project, but the proposal went nowhere.

Rep Joe Sanfelippo, a Republican from New Berlin and one of the sponsors of the 2018 bill to revive the project, said Wednesday that he was pleased Evers was planning to advance the I-94 plans again.

“This is a project that benefits the entire state” he said. “With the Port of Milwaukee, you’ve got a lot of agriculture and manufacturing projects that travel through the area. The faster you can transport them, the lower the cost.”

Various business groups on Wednesday echoed that support. Jason Culotta, president of the Midwest Food Products Association, said rebuilding I-94 west of downtown Milwukaee would improve a “key statewide pressure point,” for freight and commuters.

John Schmitt, president and business manager of the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council, meanwhile, said the project will help boost the region’s economy.

But on Wednesday, several civil-rights and environmental organizations urged Gov. Evers to reconsider the plans. They included the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin Chapter and the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, which are generally arguing that state spending on high-dollar freeway projects will come at the expense of investment in public transit and will do little to benefit communities of color.

Such arguments have landed the state in court before. In 2014, a lawsuit over the state’s Zoo Interchange project brought the ACLU, the Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin a $13 million settlement after the groups successfully argued state transportation officials had ignored disadvantaged residents in Milwaukee’s central city when they were planning the billion-dollar job.

“Transportation investments are a matter of environmental justice and equity for communities of color and persons with disabilities,” Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of
Wisconsin Foundation, said in a statement Wednesday. “WisDOT must include and move forward with an alternative for I-94 East-West that improves transit access that ensures communities of color, persons with disabilities, and other transit-dependent residents receive a fair share of the benefits of the transportation system investment.”

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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