What is the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
We now live in a society where we have more data and analysis than we have ever had before. Yet, we make the same poor decisions that we have in the past. Why?
The decision is not about facts or data; it’s about elections, perception, and a DOT system that doesn’t value neighborhoods and places. Cities shouldn’t be designed by how fast you can get through them. They should be planned for the people that live in them.
One thing we have never heard anyone say is, “Wisconsin has the best roads.” One reason for that is we continue to spend and borrow beyond our means to support expansion that can’t maintain itself. According to Federal Highway Administration data, the share of the costs paid from road-user fees from across the country has dropped from about 70% in the 1960s to less than half today. In other words, there is no such thing as a Free-Way. It’s time to stop pretending roads pay for themselves and be more fiscally responsible for sustaining and improving what we already have in our cities.
Many organizations, businesses, and government officials supporting expansion are the same people who sell Milwaukee to out-of-towners by claiming we have low commute times. Which tells you they want people to live outside of Milwaukee and commute into job centers, which I find counterintuitive to how you would sell a city. On the other hand, they are also saying to people they are trying to attract, “Milwaukee doesn’t have a congestion problem.”
According to a report by Transportation for America, the nation’s largest 100 urban areas added 30,511 new lane-miles of roads between 1993 and 2017. That is a 42% increase. Population growth was 32% in those metros over the same period. With this significant increase, freeways should be smooth sailing, shouldn’t they? However, instead of decreasing, congestion jumped 144%.
Governor Evers and the Wisconsin DOT are planning to expand I-94 to eight lanes between downtown and the Zoo Interchange; even though the region has had stagnant population growth and transportation data shows flat demand for the last 20 years. The plan yet again, is to impose federal and state control over local municipalities infrastructure needs.
Our region has been discussing this corridor for nearly 30 years. In the early 1990s, the consensus between Milwaukee leaders, the Thompson administration, and the George HW Bush DOT was for this corridor to be rebuilt with safe, modernized exits but the same number of lanes. Additional capacity would come through transit and/or carpool. The reasons for this were sensible:
- There are acute air quality issues at this location due to I-94, I-43, the Valley Power Plant, & industry.
- There’s a sensitive cemetery pinch point where graves cannot be moved to widen the road, and
- There are transit-dependent users in core neighborhoods with poor access to jobs to the west.
Milwaukee leaders, then and now, understood that more cars in this corridor would degrade the air quality, it would not be safe to add lanes through the cemetery pinch point, and we would have done nothing for the transportation needs of residents of core neighborhoods, whose communities have been devastated by the highway itself.
The plans fell apart in the mid-1990s over disagreements about light rail in the region, but the fundamentals have never changed. The highway continues to need modernization, transportation needs of transit riders remain unmet, air quality issues remain, as does the cemetery pinch point.
And the solution, the only logical one given the conditions, is the same as it has always been. Modernize the corridor at six lanes while providing additional capacity through transit or carpool.
What WisDOT has proposed is an expanded 8-lane configuration. It ignores the longstanding air quality concerns. To overcome the cemetery pinch point, it suggests squeezing lanes to 11 feet with a tiny 2-foot shoulder. And rather than improving transportation options for core neighborhoods, it calls for the destruction of more homes & businesses, including an urgent care facility.
What could justify expanding the highway rather than modernizing it with six lanes?
- It’s not traffic counts. There has been no significant change in daily traffic volumes in the last 20 years here.
- It’s not commuting time. Google trip planner has calculated that a trip from the Milwaukee-Waukesha county line to the Northwestern Mutual tower at the far east end of downtown varies in travel time from 9-12 minutes to just 12-20 minutes during the worst of rush hour. A 5-minute average slowdown at the worst, in the worst direction. Opposite travel flows nearly unimpeded at all hours. Expanding I-94 for rush hour is a lot like booking a dinner on Valentine’s Day, not being able to get a reservation at peak time, and asking all the restaurants to expand their footprint.
- And Milwaukee regionally has some of the lowest commute times overall. In TomTom’s 2019 annual ranking, Milwaukee was 82nd out of 93 North American metros. Since then, traffic has fallen significantly due to COVID, with many anticipating prolonged impacts of “work from home,” primarily affecting downtown workers.
- Safety is always a concern on roads because there are no car accidents, only car crashes. According to the World Resources Institute, expanding lanes only decreases safety. If we were serious about safety, we would decrease the speeds on our freeways.
The only workable solution that is respectful to all parties is to modernize at six lanes, while additional capacity, if needed, should come through carpool, express bus, or future rail investments.
This WTMJ Guest Op-Ed was written by:
Jeremy Fojut is the Co-Founder of NEWaukee, an engagement agency, Newance, a talent agency, Like|Minded, a membership experience platform Start-Up, Place-Based Development, a real estate development company and a silent partner at The Rev Collective, a female and non-binary focused membership organization.
Michael Bradley is a Milwaukee resident and Cohost of the Urban Spaceship Podcast.
More about WTMJ Guest Op-Eds: WTMJ Radio has always prided itself as a hub for news/talk/sports commentary. For nearly a century on WTMJ, local leaders, professional athletes, Wisconsin residents, lawmakers, listeners, and others have provided essential conversation on a variety of topics and local issues. That’s why we’re excited about our latest initiative, WTMJ Guest Op-Eds. It’s our hope that by offering the WTMJ digital platform to a variety of critical thinkers, we will provide more ideas and dialogue in order to move the conversation forward on several local initiatives. Views expressed in these columns are not those of WTMJ Radio or Good Karma Brands.
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