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Amid Talk Of I-94 'Modernization,' Story Hill And Other Freeway Neighbors Raise Concerns

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Chuck Quirmbach
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Traffic roared along East-West I-94 on Thursday, April 8, past American Family Field.

The Wisconsin Legislature's budget committee will hold its first public hearing Friday on Gov. Tony Evers' two-year state budget proposal.

The hearing is in Whitewater. But some of the testimony is expected to pertain to the Milwaukee area. That includes a plan by Evers to have the state borrow $40 million, to begin major work on a few miles of East-West I-94, on Milwaukee's near west side. That's a stretch of highway the state says can easily become congested.

But already, the noise in the Story Hill neighborhood, just north of the very busy freeway, is constant and loud.

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Chuck Quirmbach
Part of the Story Hill neighborhood, which is just north of I-94.

Gretchen Schuldt has lived in the Story Hill neighborhood for 27 years. She said she finds ways to adjust to the din of the freeway.

"You just do. I don't know how, I don't know how much more we can cope with," said Schuldt.

Schuldt said she's worried there will be more noise in just a few years. That's because not only is the Wisconsin Department of Transportation considering repaving the 3.5 miles of I-94 from 70th street to 16th street, and squeezing in another lane of traffic each way. But the DOT wants to add frontage roads and get rid of some older-style left lane exits and entrances. To do so, the agency would add much taller right lane ramps.

According to Schuldt, even with a sound barrier the state is offering to build, the taller ramps would bring more noise pollution and air pollution.

"Right now, the freeway compared to the neighborhood is sort of sunken. It's below a hill. It would raise the ramps above the hill. Meaning all the emissions from that ramp would no longer hit the hill. It would float over the neighborhood and settle there," said Schuldt.

It's not just some Story Hill residents opposed the extensive DOT plans.

The group Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) is also weighing in against much of the proposed roadway re-do. Pastor Joseph Jackson of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church is President of MICAH's Board. He said he can support safety improvements. But Jackson said expansion is not needed for several reasons.

"One, we're in this age of technology. Folks are doing more work out of their homes. And so, it doesn't dictate a lot of freeway travel," said Jackson.

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Chuck Quirmbach
Pastor Joseph Jackson (left) of MICAH , and Story Hill resident Gretchen Schuldt. I-94 is a few hundred yards behind them, but can easily be heard from this spot.

Jackson said he also worries about the effect on the environment. And he doesn't like that at a so-called pinch point of the freeway, fitting in another lane might shrink or eliminate an emergency lane.

He said instead of adding road construction jobs, it's time to put more people to work building and operating mass transit.

"We could talk about innovative transit. Those provide jobs, and continue work on the environment. As we do infrastructure—infrastructure that leads to different types of transit—those are jobs that are created also," said Jackson.

If some of the discussion about the East-West Freeway sounds familiar, it's because the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and other groups pushed for years for Republican Governor Scott Walker to expand the 3.5 mile stretch. Walker pulled back on the then-billion dollar project prior to his unsuccessful 2018 re-election bid.

But last year, Democrat Tony Evers surprised some people by potentially reviving the freeway renovation.

The DOT has been doing some outreach about what it calls the modernization project. Last month, the department's Brian Bliesner told a webinar that updating the East-West would be in line with other major Milwaukee County freeway projects over the last 15 years.

"We want to leverage the investments that have been previously made in the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges and those modernization projects. We also want to make sure we're addressing the congestion," said Bliesner.

Bliesner went on to say the DOT has not forgotten about mass transit.

"We did want to look at transit in a new way. We're investigating additional transit opportunities, and we've formed a transit technical advisory committee," he said.

The DOT accepted written questions during the session, but did not allow people to speak. The agency said it hopes to have in-person meetings, once COVID-19 is no longer a threat.

Officially, the DOT says it's re-evaluating an earlier environmental impact statement for the East-West project, and will finish that second look this year. Meanwhile, project opponents are trying to get the $40 million in borrowing authorization knocked out of the Evers budget.

But they're worried that Republicans controlling the Legislature's Joint Committee on Finance usually like highway spending, especially for a road that connects far western GOP suburbs to downtown Milwaukee.