WisDOT Falls Back on Old Data to Justify Double-Decker Urban Highway

Does this chart cry out for more roadway capacity to you? Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group
Does this chart cry out for more roadway capacity to you? Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group released a report yesterday, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” In it, they examine 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now.

Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. Of course, at least one of these case studies was bound to be about Wisconsin…

In Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has proposed expanding a segment of I-94 that runs east-west through the city. WisDOT wants to increase the capacity of I-94, widening the road in places and adding a second deck to the highway for a narrow stretch that is bounded by three cemeteries — at a cost of $800 million over and above just repairing the existing road.

Local officials have registered their opposition publicly, and have asked WisDOT to study alternatives, including those that would not expand the highway. Members of the community have advocated against the widening and in support of transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects — as well as repair of existing roads — instead. WisDOT projects that traffic will increase in the corridor, but traffic counts have been declining in recent years.

Other transportation modes could use significant investment. State funding for the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) budget has been slashed, leading to route restructuring, curtailment of service and fare increases, all of which have made MCTS buses less convenient and less useful. Research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Economic Development found that at least 77,000 jobs in the Milwaukee metropolitan area became inaccessible by transit due to cuts in service since 2001. (Fully 43 percent of MCTS riders use its buses to get to work; 52 percent do not have a valid driver’s license and 23 percent choose to ride the bus despite the availability of a car.)

Not surprisingly, ridership has dropped, which hurts all Milwaukeeans. To benefit not only riders but everyone in the community, MCTS seeks funds to expand transit in ways that also reduce car travel, such as by adding new local bus routes, extending service hours and frequency, and limiting fare increases to no more than inflation.

Since 2010, the funding situation has only partially improved: Though the 2013-2015 biennial state budget bumped up statewide transit aid, it failed to restore the full 10 percent cut that hit local agencies in the previous budget.

Expanding the highway would also displace businesses, and residents who would live near the double-decker highway are concerned about lower property values. City leaders have protested the plans and encouraged state leaders to save the money for other, more pressing needs. Both the city and county of Milwaukee have passed resolutions opposing the highway expansion and urging state leaders to invest in local transportation improvements such as road repair and transit instead.

WisDOT’s latest justification for the project says, “This section of I-94 carries high traffic volumes, which currently vary between 138,000 and 156,000 AADT (Average Annual Daily Traffic). These traffic volumes are expected to grow to a range from 171,000 to 181,000 by 2030.”

That 2014 statement about traffic count numbers, however, oddly uses 2010 figures, while WisDOT’s own data show traffic dropping on that stretch of I-94 between 2010 and 2012, the latest year for which data are available. It is not clear why WisDOT ignores its own most recent data.

WisDOT doesn't mention it in its push to expand I-94, but traffic is actually dropping.
WisDOT doesn’t mention it in its push to expand I-94, but traffic is actually dropping.

The decline in traffic on that stretch is matched by statewide trends: Vehicle-miles traveled in Wisconsin peaked in 2004, and have remained stagnant for a decade. (See Figure 11, at top.)

Unfortunately, WisDOT has a recent track record of justifying highway expansion projects based on projections of future traffic increases that turn out not to materialize. For instance, WISPIRG Foundation research from 2013 found that traffic counts on seven recently completed highways in Wisconsin were well below the projected amounts that were used to justify the expansions.

Expanding I-94 through Milwaukee is an expensive and community-damaging solution to a congestion problem that has not gotten appreciably worse for at least a decade — one that will take money away from other transportation projects of greater use to the public.

Phineas Baxandall, senior policy analyst at U.S. PIRG, and Jeff Inglis, policy analyst at the Frontier Group, are co-authors of the report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.”

  • Dennis Grzezinski

    Of course, the elephant in the room is that the road-builders’ campaign contributions must be repaid 10,000-fold, regardless of whether more new highway lanes are actually needed.

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