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I-94 east-west safety problems and congestion remain after Milwaukee expansion abandoned 10/9/2017

10/6/17 – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Freeway safety and congestion problems that prompted state transportation officials to plan the reconstruction of I-94 between 16th and 70th streets in Milwaukee will not be dealt with now that the east-west project has been abandoned.

Just a year ago, the state Department of Transportation said its planned expansion to eight lanes in that corridor would take care of a host of problems, including “deteriorated pavement, high crash rates and congestion.”

The goal was to upgrade the stretch to meet the same standards as the redone Marquette Interchange and the Zoo Interchange, a project still underway.

An attorney for several local civil rights and environmental groups that opposed the expansion and filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the additional lanes said Friday the groups would not object to limited reconstruction targeting the safety problems.

Public transit advocates say the state’s decision this week to set aside the expansion of the corridor to eight lanes is an opportunity to reconsider the role of buses and other transit services in helping to reduce congestion.

“We should not think highway construction and transit services compete with each other; they could complement each other,” said Ivy Hu, associate professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“The extra lane in the originally authorized plan could be used as a dedicated bus and carpool lane,” Hu said.

Transportation needs and preferences are changing as a growing number of young adults in cities do not embrace the traditional dependence on cars and aging older adults look for transit options, said Peter Skopec, director of the consumer advocacy group WISPIRG.

“Wisconsin DOT should go back to the drawing board and develop a plan that fixes the highway without expansion and includes a modern rapid transit network for the region,” Skopec said.

One step toward that modern transit network would be Milwaukee County’s proposed bus rapid transit service north of I-94 between downtown Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa.

The new service has been endorsed by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and it is included in the commission’s VISION 2050 land use plan, Chief Transportation Engineer Christopher Hiebert said. The county is seeking Federal Transit Administration funding of the project.

The 2050 plan also recommends a second bus rapid transit route along the east-west corridor south of I-94, according to Hiebert. “Since transit funding has been declining in recent years, many of the plan’s transit recommendations are unfunded,” he said.

Craig Thompson, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association, said other freeway projects could meet the same fate.

“We’re not talking two-year delays here,” but the abandonment of projects, he said.

Motorists can expect at some point the 3.5-mile east-west section of I-94 to be resurfaced, as it was in the mid-’70s, late-’90s and 2011-’12, state Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Pyritz said.

Future work would likely be more involved and more costly than a simple resurfacing. That’s because each round of resurfacing has a shorter lifespan than the one that preceded it.

“Based on WisDOT’s experience with other highways, resurfacing the study area freeway system again would not be cost-effective,” transportation officials wrote in their 2016 environmental impact statement for the project.

Underlying deficiencies with cracks in concrete and voids in a gravel base under the pavement will remain there. This stretch of I-94 was built in the early 1960s.

From 2005 to 2009, the time period used in reconstruction planning, there were 2,637 crashes on this section and its ramps, or 1.4 a day, according to the final environmental impact statement. Around 29 percent of crashes resulted in injury.

Crash rates in the corridor are two to three times higher than the statewide average for large urban freeways, the study found.

Congestion is forecast to worsen as traffic volumes rise from 2009 levels of 160,000 vehicles on an average weekday to 186,000 vehicles per day in 2040.

“I-94 would generally operate at level of service D to F (extreme congestion) during the morning peak period and at level of service E (severe congestion) or F in the evening peak period, the study said.

Among the design deficiencies that contribute to safety problems are closely spaced interchanges and the combination of left- and right-hand entrance and exit ramps.

Left-hand entrance ramps result in traffic weaving to avoid incoming vehicles from that side, the statement said. The physical condition of several bridges, too, has deteriorated over the years due to age, heavier than expected traffic, road salt, and weather.

After Gov. Scott Walker last month signed a two-year state budget that did not include funding for the east-west freeway, federal highway officials said they would revoke their approval for the project if a financial plan for it wasn’t put together. Transportation Secretary David Ross responded by asking the federal government to rescind its authorization for the project.

Ross said he does not intend to revive the project in the foreseeable future. Cost is estimated at close to $1 billion.

The east-west corridor came up short of support after Foxconn Technology Group of Taiwan announced it would build a $10 billion factory to manufacture liquid crystal display panels in Racine County. The Asian electronics giant said it could employ up to 13,000 workers at the location

The news jumpstarted the long-delayed I-94 north-south project between the Mitchell Interchange and the state line, and it moved ahead of the east-west project on the priority list, Pyritz said.

After rejecting proposed construction of a double-deck section of freeway west of Miller Park between the cemeteries, DOT officials chose to expand the freeway to eight lanes between 16th and 70th streets to match capacity on both ends at the Marquette and Zoo interchanges.

The expansion prompted a lawsuit by civil rights and environmental groups. The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin filed the lawsuit in March on behalf of the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP, a chapter of the Sierra Club and the Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope.

The lawsuit challenged the state’s preference to spend billions of dollars on highway expansion while cutting funds for transit services.

No decision has been made on whether to drop the federal lawsuit, attorney Dennis Grzezinski said.