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West Allis' ramp concerns heighten debate on I-94 project

Aug. 26, 2012

At least seven years before work starts, the reconstruction of I-94 on Milwaukee's west side is becoming even more controversial than it already was.

State transportation officials were expecting city residents and their elected representatives to battle any attempt to widen the freeway near Miller Park. But they were surprised when West Allis city officials and business leaders launched a pre-emptive strike against possibly closing nearby entrance and exit ramps, just as the reconstruction planning process was getting under way.

Like the rest of the region's freeway system, the stretch of I-94 between 25th and 70th streets is nearing the end of its useful life. The state Department of Transportation is rebuilding all of the freeways, piece by piece, a decades-long job that started with the $810 million reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange and is continuing with the $1.9 billion rebuilding of I-94 from Milwaukee's south side to the Illinois line.

None of those projects is entirely without controversy. But perhaps no other part of the freeway system has drawn as much heat as the three miles of I-94 between the Marquette and Zoo interchanges. That stretch has played a key role in the 21-year struggle over tens of millions of dollars of federal transit aid and has given birth to a community organization dedicated to fighting freeway expansion.

Then and now

Squeezed between three cemeteries, the baseball stadium, residential neighborhoods and industrial districts, the freeway cannot easily be widened without removing graves, homes and businesses - or bringing heavy traffic uncomfortably close to some neighbors' houses. In previous years, neighborhood opposition helped kill proposals for a bus-only highway parallel to I-94 and for special bus- and car-pool lanes.

Nonetheless, a Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission study found that growing traffic warranted expansion of the freeway from six to eight lanes. In drawing up a master plan for rebuilding all area freeways, the study panel overruled the commission staff's recommendation not to widen this stretch. City officials and representatives of then-Gov. Jim Doyle's administration also opposed widening, but they were outvoted by a predominantly suburban bloc led by Scott Walker, then the Milwaukee County executive and now the governor.

That was nine years ago. Now, the Transportation Department is starting to plan how to rebuild I-94 and the Stadium Interchange. And while the new study may build on the planning commission's work, federal guidelines require state officials to consider all options.

With that in mind, state engineers listed all the issues to be studied as they compiled materials for public information sessions last week. Among those issues: Ramps too close together.

Federal highway guidelines say each set of entrance and exit ramps should be at least a mile apart in an urban area, said David Nguyen, project development chief in the state Transportation Department's southeastern region. But this stretch of I-94 has six such sets of ramps, including the Stadium Interchange, in three miles, or twice as many as the guidelines would allow.

West Allis raises alarm

After seeing the state materials, Peter Daniels, a top engineer in the West Allis Department of Public Works, sent out an email warning community leaders that the state "is investigating which of the access ramps to I-94 they can permanently close, including 68th St. / 70th St. and 60th St. This would have a devastating effect on our community."

The 68th St.-70th St. ramps provide access to downtown West Allis and the growing Whitnall Summit business park on the former Allis-Chalmers plant site, said Daniels' boss, Mike Lewis, West Allis director of public works. And the 60th St.-Hawley Road ramps are a key access point for businesses and residents in both West Allis and Milwaukee, said Lewis and Milwaukee west side Ald. Michael Murphy.

"Closing any of them would have a substantial negative impact on West Allis," Lewis said.

But Nguyen said, "It's premature to jump to that conclusion" this early in the planning process, adding, "It's unfair to get the community all riled up."

It's possible for engineers to develop a solution that would avoid closing ramps, Nguyen said.

For example, concern over widening the freeway has led to discussion of double-decking or building a tunnel to carry additional lanes. In a double-decking configuration, through traffic could climb into overhead express lanes while the ground-level lanes could become a lower-speed access road with entrances and exits at 68th St.-70th St., 60th St.-Hawley Road and possibly even 64th St., Nguyen said.

Nguyen stressed that was just one of many options.

Lewis said he understood that the ramps were out of compliance with modern standards and that the planning process was just starting. But he took offense at Nguyen's remarks.

"I think we have a duty to our citizens to tell them (about the ramps) and keep them informed," Lewis said.

Other communities - including Franklin, Mequon, Oak Creek and Oconomowoc - have sought new ramps, and some have succeeded, Lewis said.

"I don't think we're being unreasonable by trying to keep the access we've got," Lewis said. "Why would we want to get less? It's simply not fair."

Meanwhile, concerns about widening the freeway remain very much alive among west side residents and cemetery managers, Murphy said.

Based partly on public input, engineers will develop options to present at another set of information sessions this winter, then bring a recommended option to the public next summer, Nguyen said. Federal rules require a full-scale public hearing and formal comment period, likely in late fall 2013, he said.

Under the existing schedule, engineering and other preparations would continue through 2018, with construction starting in 2019, if state and federal officials approve.

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