WHAT SHOULD A REIMAGINED I-794 LOOK LIKE?
We’ve talked about converting I-794 to a boulevard before, why now?
When it comes to freeway removal, Milwaukee has been a leader. Park East was one of the first projects to demonstrate how freeway removal can be a catalyst for change. After twenty years, Milwaukee is once again starting to lead in this space. Most recently, WisDOT announced plans to study converting the Stadium Freeway into an at-grade boulevard (Bentley 2022). As another portion of I-794 comes to the end of its useful life, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to heal a scar left by one of the ugliest chapters in our history. We’re at a rare inflection point where Milwaukee can either cement past mistake for another half century or work towards a more equitable transportation system that helps our city heal and starts to address the climate crisis we face.
Beyond the one billion dollars of private investment the Park East Freeway removal generated, the Fiserv Forum has become one of the few places where our segregated city comes together. This unity was on full display as our Bucks advanced through the playoffs to become the defending NBA World Champions this past summer. Mayor Cavalier Johnson has already indicated support for seizing this opportunity (Schafer 2021). Now, we need Milwaukee’s Department of City Development and WisDOT to agree to consider design alternatives that include rethinking I-794 as a surface-level boulevard.
Does this mean you want to tear down all of I-794?
No, our coalition is focused on rethinking just the northern span of 794. Most urgently, the intrusive and underutilized elevated portions of the freeway between the Hoan Bridge and the Marquette Interchange. This will open new real estate to development and simplify what is perhaps the most frustrating, dangerous, and confusing place to drive in Wisconsin. Our goal is to have the City of Milwaukee and WisDOT study a boulevard alternative for this portion of I-794.
What impact will this have on the surrounding community?
Officials have long known that I-794 diminishes the “value and vibrancy” of Milwaukee’s core (“1999 Downtown Plan” 1999, 127). Following a short demolition process, residents and visitors will enjoy Milwaukee's reconnected core. Some space will be dedicated to green space, other parcels will be developed, and a new view corridor will be opened between Milwaukee's flagship neighborhoods and Lake Michigan. Beyond economic and aesthetic benefits, transportation is a public health issue. Proximity to freeways has been repeatedly linked to higher rates of asthma and other health issues. This phenomenon has disproportionately affected BIPOC communities (Waxman 2016). As a result, Milwaukee County has the highest rate of hospitalization for asthma in Wisconsin (Waxman 2016). Though rethinking I-794 alone will not solve this issue, we hope this campaign acts as a focusing event to recognize and address the health disparities created by our freeway system.
What about traffic?
A reduction in urban freeway miles does not automatically equate to a reduction in mobility. I-794 is an example of an overdesigned and underutilized freeway spur characteristic of the era it was built. Rethinking I-794 as a surface-level boulevard and reconnecting the grid will reduce congestion and make driving downtown less stressful by giving drivers coming from the Marquette Interchange and Hoan Bridge more access points to Downtown Milwaukee and the Third Ward.
Though designed to accommodate 100,000 daily drivers, just 14,500 vehicles used I-794 the year it opened (Snyder 2016, 29). Today, WisDOT’s traffic counts show ridership usage at a fraction of capacity (“WisDOT Traffic Counts” 2022; Snyder 2016). The Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s own consultants concluded that 794 is “oversized for its current and projected traffic” (Snyder 2016, 58). Usage falls precipitously along 794’s eastern span, a clear indication that most drivers are using the highway to reach downtown, not travel through it (“WisDOT Traffic Counts” 2022). A study of three highway removal projects, including the Park East Freeway, found no evidence that the removal increased traffic. Instead, traffic is better redistributed onto the street grid below (Snyder 2016, 4).
Have other cities tried this?
Many in Milwaukee, most recently acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, have supported efforts to demolish the downtown portion of I-794 that divides Downtown Milwaukee and the Third Ward. Historically, these efforts have been initiated by local coalitions interested in increasing downtown business activity, reconnecting neighborhoods, and improving the pedestrian experience.
Duluth and Albany are two other post-industrial cities where activist groups are pushing to tear down urban freeways. Each share characteristics with I-794 such as the need to reverse urban blight, the increase in developable land downtown, overly complicated traffic patterns, as well as underutilization and future maintenance costs of existing infrastructure.
Citing increased downtown economic development and property tax revenue from its 1st phase, Rochester, New York has plans to remove the second and final portion of its Inner Loop highway. The evidence is clear: the benefits of removing these redundant pieces of infrastructure are immense while the positives of the status quo are difficult to discern. Wisconsin should not miss once in a generation infrastructure funding while its neighbors reap the benefits.
How much will boulevard conversion cost?
Like the Park East Freeway, rethinking I-794 will be far less expensive than repairing it. WisDOT is currently planning to spend $300 million to reconstruct a half mile segment of I-794. That’s nearly $100 from the pocket of every single Wisconsin taxpayer for a half mile long interstate that WisDOT’s own consultants say is “oversized for its current and projected traffic” (Snyder 2016, 58). The cost of removing the Park East Freeway was $45 million, 15% of the cost of reconstructing I-794 as it is (CNU Staff n.d.). Thus far, the Park East Freeway has yielded over a billion dollars in private investment (DCD Staff n.d.). The exorbitant 32.5 acres (132% the size of Millenium Park in Chicago) of land I-794 occupies between Milwaukee Public Market and Chicago Street deprives the City of Milwaukee of $30 million a year in tax revenue.
Will this impact Port Milwaukee traffic?
Port Milwaukee traffic can shift to existing underutilized streets near I-94, a much longer highway with connections to the rest of Milwaukee’s freeway system. Have other cities tried this?
“1999 Downtown Plan.” 1999. City of Milwaukee Department of City Development. Milwaukee. https://city.milwaukee.gov/ImageLibrary/Groups/cityDCD/planning/plans/downtown1/1999-Downtown-Plan/DPPart5Streets.pdf.
Bentley, Drake. 2022. “Wisconsin DOT Study to Explore Rebuilding Highway 175 near Stadium.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. May 4, 2022. https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/local/milwaukee/2022/05/04/milwaukee-stadium-freeway-north-reexamined-grade-boulevard-favored/9640284002/.
CNU Staff. n.d. “Park East Freeway | CNU.” Accessed May 3, 2022. https://www.cnu.org/what-we-do/build-great-places/park-east-freeway.
DCD Staff. n.d. “Park East Freeway - History and Removal.” City of Milwaukee Department of City Development. Accessed April 20, 2022. https://city.milwaukee.gov/DCD/Projects/ParkEastredevelopment/Park-East-History.
Schafer, Dan. 2021. “PODCAST: Interview with Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson.” The Recombobulation Area. January 31, 2021. https://recombobulationarea.substack.com/p/podcast-interview-cavalier-johnson-milwaukee?s=w.
Snyder, Alex. 2016. “Freeway Removal in Milwaukee: Three Case Studies.” Theses and Dissertations. May 1, 2016. https://dc.uwm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2254&context=etd.
Waxman, Andrea. 2016. “Study Aims To Improve Health Of Children With Asthma » Urban Milwaukee.” Urban Milwaukee. August 2, 2016. https://urbanmilwaukee.com/2016/08/02/study-aims-to-improve-health-of-children-with-asthma/.
“WisDOT Traffic Counts.” 2022. ArcGIS. 2022. https://wisdot.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=2e12a4f051de4ea9bc865ec6393731f8.