Wisconsin Decides It Can Live Without $1.1 Billion Highway Widening After All

Wisconsin is backing off a $1.1 billion highway widening that civil rights advocates said would exacerbate racial segregation in the region. Image: WisDOT
Wisconsin is backing off a $1.1 billion highway widening that civil rights advocates said would exacerbate racial segregation in the region. Image: WisDOT

Under Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin has become a poster child for highway waste.

Walker’s DOT has slated an astronomical $6.4 billion in road expansions for the slow-growing Milwaukee region. The spending bonanza includes two interchanges that will cost nearly a billion dollars apiece. A state employee called one of them big enough to “create its own weather,” according to Politico.

But in an encouraging turn of events, policy makers are losing their appetite to follow through on these highway ambitions. Prodded by civil rights and environmental activists who took the state to court, Wisconsin is no longer pursuing one of the more wasteful and destructive projects on its road expansion agenda: the $1.1 billion widening of I-94 through Milwaukee.

The Wisconsin Gazette reports that Wisconsin DOT has asked federal officials to withdraw support for the project. In its letter to the Federal Highway Administration, WisDOT notes that the state cannot begin construction because of a pending lawsuit in federal court brought by the Milwaukee NAACP.

The suit against WisDOT contends that the highway would exacerbate the region’s “hyper-segregation” by prioritizing the travel of wealthier suburban car commuters over quality of life in the majority black and Latino neighborhoods the highway bisects. The advocates also point out that WisDOT failed to consider the potential for transit to absorb trips, and that the agency relied on outdated and inflated traffic data to make the case for road widening.

Hastening WisDOT’s decision is the state’s current fiscal landscape. Wisconsin does not, in fact, possess infinite resources to spend on highways, and money for the I-94 project was not included in the most recent state budget.

Advocates have now won three notable victories against Walker’s road-building binge in recent years. Wisconsin DOT dropped the widening of Highway 38 following criticism from the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group in 2014. And civil rights groups won $13 million for transit following a suit over the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange the same year.

More recommended reading today: Pricetags reports that a California school district has decided a local road is too dangerous for a crossing guard — so all students are supposed to get driven to school. And the Natural Resources Defense Council looks at what we would lose if the Trump administration rolls back federal fuel efficiency standards.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Good. The amount of excess road capacity in Milwaukee is already staggering.

  • Vooch

    BTW $1 billion would build 2,000 miles of protected bike lanes.

    That’s enough for 200 miles of PBL in each of 10 cities:
    New York City
    Chicago
    Los Angeles
    Washington DC
    Atlanta
    Dallas
    Boston
    Philly
    Madison 🙂
    San Fransisco Bay Area

    Think about the increased mobility for nearly a hundred million people for the price of one short stretch of highway expansion

  • Love to see you ride a bike in Milwaukee during a snowstorm, figure a foot of snow, visibility of maybe 1/4 mile, along with 60 mph winds off the lake, drifts up to 10 feet high, -40 windchill, and no money to plow those bike paths with either.

    Where do you get 100 million people from if no more than 3% of the population rides bicycles?

  • Vooch

    Dude – in those conditions motor cars ain’t going anywhere.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Myself and many others ride year round in Milwaukee’s equally harsh southern neighbor Chicago. The roads and paths are clear by the time you’re awake.

    There are plenty of places in the world where people ride in harsh climates year round. In cycling we have a rule (#5): “Harden the f*** up.

  • MT

    Like to see you drive in those conditions.

  • Scott Scott

    Try driving US-45 Southbound from 3pm-6pm (26th worst rush hour in USA)

  • Frank Kotter

    Better suggestion: try riding from Menominee falls to the County Hospital in Tosa on a bike. It’s it takes bout half an hour, is a total shit show and is not recommended for anyone other than those with a death wish.

    You can’t build your way out of encouraging people to drive alone to work each and every day. The only solution is to get people out of their cars.

    This is not a problem unique to Milwaukee, but it has been massively exacerbated by decisions from Madison in the past decades.

  • TakeFive

    The biggest issues were fiscal. First they wildly underestimated the costs of projects. Secondly, while bond funding is fine, the fiscally conservative Republicans utterly failed to create a (new) revenue stream for paying off the bonds. Call it a double dose of smoke and mirrors.

  • rqued

    I’m so torn about this. On the one hand, yes let’s celebrate the fact that this colossal waste of money and time and space may be coming to an end. On the other hand, that we even got to the point where we’d spend billions on a project only to shut it down mid-way through epitomizes the disastrous state of road funding in America. #NoNewRoads

  • John Murphy

  • Michael

    Yep. We could take a 10-15 feet off every street in district 12. Our streets are so wide, we angle park instead of parallel parking.

    Of course we have to maintain and plow all that useless tarmac and no one has front yards…

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