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 corridor study, 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 affected local streets would accomplish the following:
Maintain a critical 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.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation estimates the project will require up to 3.8 million hours of on-site labor by skilled construction professionals. The wages earned on the project will flow throughout the economy, supporting local businesses. Furthermore, this project is anticipated to deliver up to $115 million in contracts to small, minority, and women-owned businesses through WisDOT’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program, according to the National Association of Minority Contractors, Wisconsin Chapter. But longer term, the corridor’s improvement enhances economic competitiveness and development for decades by providing safe, efficient access to jobs, services, materials, and markets.
The East-West is a vital commerce corridor carrying nearly $25 billion in freight annually. Modernizing the roadway will help Wisconsin businesses get products like beer, motorcycles, steel, frozen pizzas, and more to market faster.
The total cost is estimated at $1 billion. Eighty-five to ninety percent of this cost is related to pavement and bridge replacement and design and safety improvements. Only 10%-15% is due to the additional lane.
Funding for this project is not transferrable to other transportation programs like public transportation or local roads.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) looked closely at the resurfacing option and had this to say: “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.
The freeway and transit projects are complementary, and both are important to increasing safety, reducing congestion, and promoting economic development in the region.
Transit is a critical component of an effective regional transportation system – it’s just not an “either-or” proposition. The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) has determined that even if transit offerings were to double, it would not be enough to address traffic congestion on the East-West Corridor effectively. The solution is a robust transit element in conjunction with required capacity and safety improvements to the freeway.
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 American Family Field and other attractions, and more.
Additionally, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission’s (SEWRPC) Vision 2050 noted that planned expansion of Southeast Wisconsin freeways would directly serve areas of minority and low-income populations. As a result, minority and low-income populations residing adjacent to the modernized I-94 East-West Corridor would benefit from the expected improvement in accessibility to employment. Based on 2012 project data, about 81 percent of all workers and 79 percent of the minority population in the I-94 East-West Corridor drive alone or carpool to work.
Communities in and around the area will benefit from a neighborhood-sensitive design that avoids nearby homes, businesses, and cemeteries and reduced traffic diversions onto their local streets as travelers choose the improved I-94 for their trips.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) engaged in an extensive and diligent process to analyze and evaluate several project design options. The process involved many public comment opportunities, including public involvement meetings, public hearings, individual stakeholder meetings, a public comment period, and frequent communication through e-newsletters.
As a result of this process, the agencies 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.
East-West reconstruction is essential to the completion and success of the state’s $2.4 billion investment in the Zoo and Marquette interchanges. Without the East-West Corridor project, neither interchange will operate at its intended level of efficiency. That diminishes the economic benefits derived from improved mobility, crash reductions (since reconstruction, crashes in the Marquette Interchange are down 45 percent), and improved travel times.
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 wasted if they are connected by 3.5 miles of crumbling and unsafe freeway. These modern interchanges will only work as intended if the primary freeway connecting them is equally efficient and safe.
Delay hurts Milwaukee and Waukesha counties’ economic development and impairs the region’s efforts to grow. A good transportation network is key to economic growth and job creation and consistently ranks as one of the top criteria among business executives determining desirable commercial investment locations.
Further delay jeopardizes over $20 million already invested in planning, environmental study, early engineering work, and the consensus built among a broad range of stakeholders.
Failing to move forward with corridor modernization forces a no-win decision between two bad options: a continual cycle of costly Band-Aid solutions – such as another resurfacing (estimated at $40 million-plus) – or a replace-in-kind scenario where the state pays for the construction of a brand-new bottleneck at the cost of more than half a billion dollars. While reconstructing the segment as-is will alleviate the need for short-term patches, it will do nothing to address the underlying safety and congestion issues.
Freeway congestion and unsafe conditions will continue to hamper travel for the one 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.
In July 2020, Governor Evers announced a renewed focus on the I-94 East-West Corridor project. This project to modernize the stretch of I-94 between 16th and 70th Streets is being reevaluated. The process includes getting input from transit, business, and labor and disadvantaged business enterprise advisory groups to better meet the needs of Milwaukee’s diverse communities.
Currently, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) is updating the environmental documents as a step toward a new federal approval or Record of Decision (ROD). Work is expected to be completed in 2021.
If the project is not enumerated and funds appropriated in the 2021-23 state budget, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will not sign a new ROD. Without this, the project cannot continue to the preliminary engineering phase, and it will stall out again.