Earth Day Resolution: Stop Building Projects Like the Zoo Interchange


Leading up to Earth Day, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Time Is Running Out,” lamenting the lack of urgency in the United States to prevent a very urgent problem: catastrophic climate change. Today, Brad Plumer at Vox explained why it may be too late to keep average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the threshold that climate scientists have been warning about.

There are many steps we’ll have to take to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But one of them is most definitely this: America has to stop spending billions on projects like Wisconsin’s Zoo Interchange and start getting serious about building places where people can get around by walking, biking, and taking transit.

The Zoo Interchange embodies America’s broken transportation spending system, which former US DOT official Beth Osborne described on Atlantic Cities today as “an entitlement for state departments of transportation to allocate for their own priorities.”

This single highway interchange, aimed at reducing delays for suburban car commuters in the nation’s 30th largest city, costs more than total federal spending on walking and biking annually.

The Zoo Interchange carries 300,000 cars per day. It is “Wisconsin’s oldest and busiest interchange,” according to the state. A big part of Wisconsin DOT’s justification for the Milwaukee interchange is “safety.” According to WisDOT, there were an average of 2.5 collisions a day on the interchange between 2000 and 2005, and nine were fatal.

By comparison, according to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, Americans make about 112 million walking trips daily. About 4,000 pedestrians are killed annually on American roads.

And yet, Wisconsin will spend more on this one sprawl-inducing highway project than the feds spend each year on all walking and biking projects combined.

Clearly, our priorities are out of whack — way out of whack.

Total federal spending for biking and walking amounts to about $2.61 per capita. If the pricetag of the Zoo Interchange were divided by every man, woman, and child in the United States, the cost would be $5.39. It’s important to note that state and local funds will pay for most of this project. Still, our sources tell us that Zoo Interchange planners hope to get 20 percent of the cost from the federal government, or $344 million.

Meanwhile, advocates fought tirelessly to protect $822 million in funding for biking and walking in the last federal transportation bill.

And here’s the sad fact. The Zoo Interchange isn’t all that special. It’s a very expensive interchange, but it belongs to the same club as Louisville’s $2.6 billion Ohio River Bridges project or Cleveland’s $300 million Opportunity Corridor. Almost every region of the country has a road project that appears just as dubious.

We won’t succeed in the fight against climate change if we keep throwing billions of dollars down the sinkhole of car dependence and sprawl.

12 thoughts on Earth Day Resolution: Stop Building Projects Like the Zoo Interchange

  1. I think the overall cost of the Zoo Interchange is understated, as part of the project includes the accusation and demolition of exciting developed land which will erode the local tax base for the entire life of the project.

  2. This one is particularly lunatic, given that there’s still a civil rights lawsuit alleging that the Zoo Interchange plan is discriminatory and violates federal law. (And I tend to believe them; they’ve piled up a mass of evidence of actual animus from the people pushing the Zoo Interchange plan at WisDOT.)

  3. Not to defend the gross inequalities of spending on roads versus transit and active transportation, but I have to point out that Milwaukee’s zoo interchange needs to be replaced because it is literally falling apart. In fact, the delays to replacing the interchange have resulted in even higher total costs for the project. Several years ago, WISDOT realized that several bridges in the interchange were structurally unsound, and had to demolish them and rebuild them as temporary bridges because they hadn’t yet completed the preliminary engineering. Talk about a waste of money–if the project hadn’t been delayed, that wouldn’t have needed to happen.

    So. We need to replace these old interchanges that are falling apart in both Milwaukee and elsewhere. That is certain. In my opinion we transit/bike/ped advocates would be much more effective if we took a different approach. Rather than obstructing these projects that have to be done, we should be working our tails off to make sure that when these interchanges are re-done, they re-knit back neighborhoods, they include lanes and stops for express transit, and they are as pedestrian/bike friendly as they can possibly be. (The zoo interchange reconstruction, by the way, also includes a final
    piece of bikeway that connects to the Hank Aaron state trail. Hat tip to the Wisconsin Bike Fed for making sure that happened.)

    In my opinion, the real crime of the zoo interchange reconstruction is not the interchange itself. It’s the widening that was done on highway 100 (an already wide surface street with poor development patterns) to the north and south of the interchange.

  4. wow. You whackos won’t be happy until we are walking everywhere. News flash: NOT POSSIBLE!!!

  5. What would happen if we didn’t?

    Like just demolish 684 and let 94 go straight through.* How is this money not better spent on something useful like Pre-K, or for the small government people, just write a check for $850 to each of the 2 million people in the Milwaukee Metro area.

    *I am aware this would still cost some money, not even close to as much, and you would save on maintenance and future building so let’s call it a wash.

  6. Agreed – the Zoo Interchange needs to be rebuilt, and I’m fine w/ redoing the entrance/exit ramps to current standards. However, it does not need to be widened for 4 lanes east/west. And the current nutjob plan from WisDOT to double-deck 94 east of the interchange to accommodate the 4th lane is a complete waste – sorry, if you made the choice to live in Brookfield/Waukesha and work downtown, then you also made the choice to make the commute in. Don’t like the drive times – move closer.

  7. We did it for tens of thousands of years and did it traveling across entire continents. Asking to just walk and bike within the city and its surrounding neighborhoods shouldn’t be a challenge. If we implement more rapid transit, change the code, and change the way our cities are built from a sprawling manner to a more dense one, it would be completely possible.

  8. Wow. You wackos won’t be happy until we are driving everywhere. News flash: NOT POSSIBLE!!!

  9. If such interchanges are to be rebuilt they should do it Hollywood, Florida scaled traffic circle- park “Alexandria Orb” style- see the blog “A Trip within The Beltway”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


UPDATED: Federal Judge Weighs Injunction Against $1.7B Wisconsin Highway Project

Update: This article was amended at 5:25 p.m. to reflect corrections in the original article. Environmental attorneys in Wisconsin are doing tremendously important work. Groups representing people of color and poorer Wisconsinites recently won an injunction are advancing a lawsuit against a $1.7 billion interchange outside Milwaukee. They argued that such a costly highway project, […]

The Last Thing Atlanta Needs Is a Billion Dollar Interchange Expansion

At $950 million, rebuilding and expanding the interchange of Georgia 400 and Interstate 285 in suburban Atlanta will be the costliest road project in the state’s history. Project proponents argue it will relieve congestion for the 365,000 vehicles that pass through the nexus of these two highways each day. But they’re fooling themselves if they believe that, writes […]

Putting TIGER Spending in Perspective

The House’s current transportation spending bill calls for reducing the share of federal spending that goes to TIGER, a grant program for sustainable transportation projects in cities, from $500 to $100 million. The budget, meanwhile, holds highway funding steady. TIGER is an enormously popular program. In its second year, it received close to 1,000 applications […]

Midwest Govs Go All Out to Raise More Money for Highways

We’ve been watching how governors around the country are getting extra “creative” as they try to keep their transportation budgets solvent. Yesterday we witnessed an excise tax on bicycles floated in Washington State. But the award for the wildest funding scheme may go to renowned highway spender Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, who wants to […]

Wisconsin’s Misplaced Priorities on Display as Green Bay Bridge Sags

In yet another reminder of what happens when states ignore their existing infrastructure while plotting massive road expansions, a section of heavily traveled bridge in Green Bay Wisconsin is “sagging” nearly two feet. Authorities have closed the bridge, which carries about 40,000 vehicles a day, after frantic calls from drivers. USA Today carried this transcript […]