Map credit: Map tiles by Stamen Design, under CC BY 3.0. Data by OpenStreetMap, under ODbL.

I-94 East-West Expansion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Status: On hold
Originally reported cost: $800 million

Update from Highway Boondoggles 6, 2020: Wisconsin revives a cancelled highway expansion

One of the projects included in the first edition of Highway Boondoggles, released in 2014, was the proposed expansion of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee. The project made little sense: I-94 had stagnant traffic levels, the project would damage the surrounding community and it came with a price tag of $800 million even as the local Milwaukee County Transit System was curtailing service and coping with a slashed budget.

Four years later, in 2018, then-Governor Scott Walker pulled the plug on the project and asked the federal government to rescind its approval for the project. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Walker said, “There are some groups out there that want to spend billions and billions and billions of dollars on more, bigger, wider interchanges across the state. I actually think we should be fixing and maintaining our infrastructure. I don’t know that we need bigger and better and broader right now when we have a changing transportation system.”

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The east-west stretch of I-94 where expansion has been proposed runs horizontally through the middle of this aerial view of Milwaukee. The Stadium interchange is at the center. Credit: Wisconsin Department of Transportation

Today, the project that seemed dead may be coming back to life, as in July 2020, Governor Tony Evers reversed Walker’s position and asked the federal government to once again approve the project. The reasons for the change of heart are not clear. Aside from the state backing away from its earlier plan to build a double-decked road, little about the project has changed since 2014. With inflation, project costs are now estimated to reach or exceed $1 billion. Local transit service continues to struggle for funding to maintain service levels. The project’s revival also comes amid budget shortfalls related to the COVID-19 pandemic: Wisconsin has suffered steep decreases in revenue and in July, Governor Evers ordered state agencies to cut their budgets by $250 million.

Update from Highway Boondoggles 5, 2019: A change of heart in Wisconsin frees transportation funds

“There are some groups out there that want to spend billions and billions and billions of dollars on more, bigger, wider interchanges across the state. I actually think we should be fixing and maintaining our infrastructure. I don’t know that we need bigger and better and broader right now when we have a changing transportation system.” These words were spoken in 2018 by then-Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, soon after cancelling plans to rebuild the east-west stretch of I-94 in Milwaukee following a warning from the federal government that it would withdraw authorization for the project without a new state funding plan.

Walker’s decision to forgo the I-94 expansion paid immediate dividends to Wisconsin’s transportation system. Without including a costly boondoggle, Walker’s transportation budget that year was able to include modest increases in transit funding and local infrastructure maintenance.

His words also reflected a surprising, and encouraging, change of heart. Walker’s transportation department had overseen expensive and unnecessary highway projects for years. In 2013, WISPIRG Foundation released its report Road Overkill, which examined six completed highway expansion projects in the state, finding that most had failed to reach the projected traffic levels used to justify their construction. One year later, WISPIRG Foundation’s Fork in the Road examined the costs of four highway expansion megaprojects being championed by the Walker administration and highlighted better ways to spend that money. And the costly and unnecessary I-94 project cancelled by Walker was covered in the first Highway Boondoggles report in 2014.

Today, Wisconsin still has not left highway boondoggles behind. Work still continues on a capacity expansion for another stretch of I-94, which was covered in last year’s Highway Boondoggles 4. And new governor Tony Evers’ March 2019 budget proposal included new money to move forward with a $500 million widening project of I-43 north of Milwaukee. But Evers also included a large transit funding increase in his budget proposal, and has stated his intention to shift money away from big highway projects toward local road maintenance projects.

Original story from Highway Boondoggles, 2014:

In Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has proposed expanding a segment of I-94 that runs east-west through the city. WisDOT wants to increase the capacity of I-94, widening the road in places and adding a second deck to the highway for a narrow stretch that is bounded by three cemeteries—at a cost of $800 million over and above just repairing the existing road. Local officials have registered their opposition publicly, and have asked WisDOT to study alternatives, including those that would not expand the highway. Members of the community have advocated against the widening and in support of transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects—as well as repair of existing roads—instead. WisDOT projects that traffic will increase in the corridor, but traffic counts have been declining in recent years.

Other transportation modes could use significant investment. State funding for the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) budget has been slashed, leading to route restructuring, curtailment of service and fare increases, all of which have made MCTS buses less convenient and less useful. Research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Economic Development found that at least 77,000 jobs in the Milwaukee metropolitan area became inaccessible by transit due to cuts in service since 2001. (Fully 43 percent of MCTS riders use its buses to get to work; 52 percent do not have a valid driver’s license and 23 percent choose to ride the bus despite the availability of a car.)

Not surprisingly, ridership has dropped, which hurts all Milwaukeeans. To benefit not only riders but everyone in the community, MCTS seeks funds to expand transit in ways that also reduce car travel, such as by adding new local bus routes, extending service hours and frequency, and limiting fare increases to no more than inflation. Since 2010, the funding situation has only partially improved: though the 2013-2015 biennial state budget bumped up statewide transit aid, it failed to restore the full 10 percent cut that hit local agencies in the previous budget.

Expanding the highway would also displace businesses, and residents who would live near the double-decker highway are concerned about lower property values. City leaders have protested the plans and even encouraged state leaders to save the money for other, more pressing needs. Both the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County have passed resolutions opposing the highway expansion and urging state leaders to invest in local transportation improvements such as road repair and transit instead.

WisDOT’s latest description of the need for the project says, “This section of I-94 carries high traffic volumes, which currently vary between 138,000 and 156,000 AADT (Average Annual Daily Traffic). These traffic volumes are expected to grow to a range from 171,000 to 181,000 by 2030.”

That 2014 statement about traffic count numbers, however, oddly uses 2010 figures, while WisDOT’s own data show traffic instead dropping on that stretch of I-94 between 2010 and 2012, the latest year for which data are available. It is not clear why WisDOT ignores its own most recent data.

The decline in traffic on that stretch is matched by statewide trends: vehicle-miles traveled in Wisconsin peaked in 2004, and have remained stagnant for a decade.

Unfortunately, WisDOT has a recent track record of justifying highway expansion projects based on projections of future traffic increases that turn out not to materialize. For instance, WISPIRG Foundation research from 2013 found that traffic counts on seven recently completed highways in Wisconsin were well below the projected amounts that were used to justify the expansions.

Expanding I-94 through Milwaukee is an expensive and community-damaging solution to a congestion problem that has not gotten appreciably worse for at least a decade—one that will take money away from other transportation projects of greater use to the public.