Joe Sanfelippo: I-94 East-West project represents ATM for Wisconsin’s economy

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by

Infrastructure is an issue that directly impacts Wisconsinites from all corners of the state on a daily basis. From the most remote rural regions to the densest neighborhoods of our biggest cities, all of our communities rely on efficient infrastructure for their economies and for their citizens’ quality of life. More than any other project in the state, the I-94 East-West corridor renovation represents a critical imperative with impacts throughout Wisconsin. Our infrastructure supports our state’s ATM – Agriculture, Tourism, and Manufacturing – and an investment in the East-West corridor project promises to provide multifold economic benefits far into the future.

The East-West reconstruction is not just another local road project: it’s an economic development program for the entire state of Wisconsin. This short 3.5 mile stretch of road carries $23 billion in freight annually. That’s crops grown and products manufactured from all over the state, much of it headed to the Port of Milwaukee for export. Providing infrastructure for the quick movement of goods gives large out-of-state businesses confidence to invest in Wisconsin, knowing that they’ll be able to efficiently ship whatever they produce. The American Transportation Research Institute has rightly named this interchange one of the worst truck bottlenecks in America, and it represents a real impediment to future growth. Supporting projects like the East-West reconstruction will help attract the next Foxconn to our state, ensuring that Wisconsin remains an economic powerhouse in the Midwest for years to come.

This project is also vital to promoting tourism in our state. The East-West corridor is a gateway for tourists traveling to northern and western parts of Wisconsin for holidays and vacations. It also allows visitors to come into Milwaukee to see a Brewers or Bucks game, visit the State Fair, enjoy the music at Summerfest, or explore the many wonderful restaurants and shops that downtown has to offer. Making sure that this important link remains open, safe, and efficient is critical to our state’s tourism industry.

The East-West corridor sees around 160,000 vehicles per day, roughly 30,000 more than the road was intended to handle at maximum capacity when it was designed in the 1950s. Many of its design elements are long-outdated: left-side ramps, narrow shoulders, and difficult lane changes are relics that have not aged well. These outmoded features don’t just make for an unpleasant driving experience or increased congestion, they have a tangible and detrimental impact on safety. The crash rate on this stretch is between double and triple the statewide urban freeway average. The status quo is simply untenable and unacceptable.

The East-West reconstruction will address those concerns by rebuilding the freeway and bridges along the corridor, modernizing the highway to include robust safety features and increase vehicle throughput. It would also eliminate a bottleneck by matching the road design of the two major points it connects: the Marquette and Zoo Interchanges.

Right now, the East-West reconstruction is in jeopardy. While preparations had been moving along for the scheduled 2020-21 groundbreaking, the project was unexpectedly cut from last September’s final budget. That’s why Senator Alberta Darling and I have introduced AB 919 to keep the project alive. AB 919 doesn’t fund the entire reconstruction right now; it makes critical funding available to allow the planning work to continue moving forward and to avoid squandering the significant investments we’ve already made. This money comes from existing savings found in the Transportation budget that the Governor announced earlier this month. It’s important to know that these savings are from efficiencies realized and projects coming in under-budget; no funding will come from cuts to other ongoing or planned projects elsewhere in the state.

I know that people are tired of the frequent road work in the area, and while I share their frustration, delaying action on reconstruction merely kicks the can down the road. Resurfacing the pavement temporarily provides a smoother surface; however, it doesn’t address the weakening base that supports the new surface. Installed in 1963, this underlying base has undergone multiple resurfacings over the years, and is already well past the end of its scheduled useful life. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation carefully studied this alternative and found that “resurfacing the study area freeway system again would not be cost effective.” Moreover, any such resurfacing would still require years of lane closures, cost $60-$80 million to complete, and would merely delay the need for this critical project. It would also not only waste the $22 million of work we’ve already done, it would raise the cost of the project by at least $40 million in inflation-related expenses alone, while also jeopardizing the hundreds of millions of dollars in matching Federal-aid necessary to fund the reconstruction.

We’ve done great work on infrastructure in southeast Wisconsin: the Marquette and Zoo Interchanges have been hugely successful projects, easing congestion and saving lives through improved safety. Continuing to delay improving the East-West corridor, the artery connecting these two interchanges, represents a massive opportunity cost by not realizing the full benefits of those huge projects and creating an unnecessary weak link in the system. Wisconsin has done a great job of laying the groundwork for an economic ATM machine; now we need to make sure we fund it in order to benefit from the withdrawals for years to come.

– Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, represents the 15th Assembly District.