It seems like the Zoo Interchange has been under construction for 10 years now (it’s really less than 4). Before that, it seemed like the Mitchell Interchange had been under construction for a decade, and before that the Marquette. But as much as we moaned and complained during the rebuilding of the latter two interchanges, there’s no denying their improved efficiency and safety in the subsequent years. As the Zoo project finishes up and more and more lanes open each day, this project, too, was obviously a good choice.

The reality is that our freeway systems statewide are all nearing end-of-life, having mostly been built in the 50s-70s. Since then, the Milwaukee system has degraded with normal wear and tear, in addition to handling increased traffic loads above original estimates. Perhaps most telling of their age, though, are the poorly-designed ramps and routes themselves, relics of a time when civil designers had no previous projects or data to reference.

These inefficient and unsafe designs are evident in the frequent left-lane exits and entrances, sharp turning ramps, and stub on/off ramps still dotting the area. Both the Mitchell and Marquette redesigns removed most of these flaws, adopting the more modern idea of right-lane exit and entrances only, with long, sloping ramps, and the Zoo work is following suit.

The Stadium Interchange as seen in 1975. Photo from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

But with the Marquette to the east and the Zoo to the west finally being brought into the 21st century, there remains a design dinosaur sandwiched between them that continues to snarl traffic and cause accidents: the Stadium Interchange. This dreaded stretch of I-94 in the Miller Valley features all the bad design ideas mentioned above, and effectively disrupts any improved flow provided by either newer interchange nearby.

And so in 2011, Governor Walker and the Transportation Project Commission began a $20 million planning phase, which took 3 years and culminated in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation recommending moving on/off ramps and adding one lane in each direction E/W (instead of a more imaginative double-decker freeway). While controversy over the plan naturally continued, as it would for any nigh-billion dollar public works project, with the progression of the Zoo project it seemed the following Stadium rebuild was a done deal.

But, surprisingly, in late 2016 Governor Walker flip-flopped and publicly reversed his support of the project. The head of the WIDOT also asked the Feds to rescind their approval of the project, which they did. Now this fall, with Walker notably omitting any proposal for funding in his 2017-2019 state budget, the original plan is effectively dead.

The Stadium Interchange today as seen from Google Maps.

This is a tricky problem, with valid points on multiple sides:

The Need to Rebuild

It is a 100% certainty that the state will need to spend millions of dollars to update and maintain the existing interchange. In the not-so-distant future, the state will undoubtedly need to replace the interchange at a higher cost than today, or remove it completely if other avenues for transport are developed. In the meantime, traffic congestion and accidents continue.

The Neighborhood Impact

Residents of surrounding area, Story Hill, were none too keen on an expansion of the interchange, with the WIDOT proposed plan removing surface-level on and off ramps and the planned increase in traffic noise. However, the redesign plan included installation of noise-barricades, which the current freeway does not feature.

The Public Transit Problem

County buses, the upcoming streetcar, and the proposed Bus Rapid Transit are transportation options for the low income, car-less residents of our city. This particular freeway route serves primarily to chauffeur people to and from downtown Milwaukee and the west suburbs via car. It would be nice if the redevelopment plan included some sort of public transportation aspect. We routinely drop billions of dollars on road maintenance; imagine how fast we could’ve built a streetcar system with a billion bucks. (Better yet, how about light-rail?)

As a car user who frequents I-94, and an engineer who loves efficiency, the Stadium Interchange is a thorn in the side of an effective interstate system for our city. Unfortunately, with our current state budget and leadership there seems to be no solution in sight. So here’s to many more years of rush hour traffic jams and left-sided on-ramps, Milwaukee!

Featured image from WISDOT.

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