Milwaukee Journal Sentinal – Tony Evers is trying to revive a nearly $1 billion on-again, off-again construction project to rebuild Interstate 94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges in Milwaukee.
The move by the Democratic governor comes nearly three years after former Republican Gov. Scott Walker abandoned the project because he couldn’t find a way to pay for it. Since then, Evers and Republicans who control the Legislature have funneled more money into road projects by raising title and registration fees on vehicles.
The state needs permission from the Federal Highway Administration to rebuild I-94 because the federal government will pay for much of it.
It got the OK from the federal government to do the project before, but Walker asked to have the federal approval revoked in October 2017 when the federal government warned it was about to withdraw the approval because the state didn’t have a way to fund its share of the project.
Evers announced Wednesday he would ask again for approval to rebuild I-94 between 70th Street and 16th Street. Evers said it would create 6,000 to 10,000 jobs, improve safety, cut travel times and boost the economy by allowing for better flow of products through southeastern Wisconsin.
“We know that deferring road maintenance could cost us more down the road and put safety at risk, so getting to work on this project is good common sense,” Evers said in a statement.
The state could get an answer from the federal government in 12 to 18 months after it updates environmental and traffic studies, Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson said.
Construction likely would not begin in earnest until after the north leg of the Zoo Interchange is completed in 2023, he said.
The section of I-94 between the Zoo and Marquette interchanges has a crash rate that is 2½ times greater than similar highways, Thompson said. The 60-year-old stretch of highway needs to be upgraded because it is not up to current standards, he said.
“Simply ignoring it is not an option,” he said.
The project would also need approval from the state Legislature, and lawmakers from both parties have shown support for it. Local officials and business groups have long pushed for it.
“This is one of the busiest and most commercially significant stretches of interstate in Wisconsin. By expanding capacity and increasing safety, we will ensure that this vital artery for commerce and tourism remains healthy for generations to come,” said a statement from Steve Baas, senior vice president for governmental affairs for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow said the project would help Milwaukee and Waukesha workers, “as well as thousands more across the region who will go to Brewers games, the State Fair, Summerfest and other events for decades to come.”
But the project has its share of opponents as well.
Democratic state Rep. Daniel Riemer of Milwaukee said the state should rebuild the project without expanding it. That would save hundreds of millions of dollars that he said should be used to fill potholes around the state.
“Basic infrastructure repair is more important than expanding a freeway,” he said.
Religious, civil rights and environmental groups that have long opposed I-94’s expansion took a similar view. They want more investment in mass transit to connect people to jobs and help the environment.
“We will not stand by and allow the government to continue to roll over us like the cars on these proposed massive freeways. We need a comprehensive transportation strategy that will unite us and serve the greater good,” said a statement from the Rev. Marilyn Miller, president of Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope.
Also opposing the expansion are Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, the John Muir chapter of the Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.
The stretch of I-94 is difficult to build to the latest safety standards because historic gravesites in the Story Hill neighborhood limit the ability to expand the freeway. Transportation officials at times have considered building a double-decker highway to limit the project’s footprint, but Thompson is ruling out that possibility.
The latest figures, from 2014, estimate the project would cost $852 million, but with inflation it could approach or exceed $1 billion. Officials will update their cost projections over the next year, Thompson said.