A friend recently called while driving home from work to a western Milwaukee suburb. When I asked how traffic was on Milwaukee’s East-West I-94, he laughed and explained that he uses “city streets” (in this case North Avenue). He said the freeway most often resembles “a parking lot” at what is euphemistically known as rush hour.
More and more, this condition on one of the state’s most heavily traveled sections of highway will represent the new normal. It reflects Governor Scott Walker’s decision, announced to a Northern Wisconsin media audience in 2016, to forego Southeast Wisconsin freeway reconstruction “for the foreseeable future.” (The governor subsequently flipped when it came to the North-South segment of I-94 adjacent to Foxconn. During the same timeframe that he advanced the North-South work he took the stunning step of backing out of East-West I-94 upgrades initiated by him early in his administration.)
The November 6 election results raise the prospect, perhaps slight, that the East-West reconstruction is not dead after all. Two steps would be needed to get things going again. One is geeky. The other is political, in the best sense of the word.
The geeky.The Federal Highway Administration would need to reinstate its crucial “Record of Decision” approving the project. It rescinded the approval at Walker’s request, about a year after Walker had urged FHWA to OK the work. That rescission put at risk about $25 million in environmental and engineering work initiated by Walker in the early years of his administration. For FHWA to act it needs a political signal from the state.
The political. Governor-elect Tony Evers needs to decide the East-West project is worth reviving. One of several obstacles is anti-Milwaukee sentiment on transportation that Walker has fostered out-state. And in Milwaukee itself Evers would need a meeting of the minds with his ally, Mayor Tom Barrett, who has not favored the project. A commitment by the new Evers administration to strengthen the state’s mass transit role might be one piece of a broader agreement. Local groups that have litigated against the project have made inadequate mass transit support a central part of their case.
The broader significance of the East-West project’s fate is hard to overstate. With the North-South I-94 project now financed, much of the remaining work on southeastern Wisconsin freeways is in Milwaukee and the western and northern portions of metro Milwaukee. If Evers can’t get the East-West back on track, how will he justify and attract political support for other elements of the essential reconstruction program?
The alternative to re-establishing a political coalition behind southeastern Wisconsin freeway work is an ongoing series of temporary repaving projects along the existing right-of-way. This is what’s going on now in the I-894 loop around western and southern Milwaukee. The price tag for such work will grow to the hundreds of millions. That money will come from the account of dollars otherwise available for out state projects.
The status quo can’t please the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Foxconn, or Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. The question now is whether Evers, the business community and Barrett can forge a deal that would produce enough legislative support to rewrite this chapter of the Walker transportation legacy.