'It's just the wrong design': Discussions over the future of I-794 continue

NOW: ’It’s just the wrong design’: Discussions over the future of I-794 continue

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The future of the I-794 Lake Interchange corridor running through the heart of Milwaukee continues to be a discussion, with one group calling for it to be replaced with a ground-level boulevard.

Rethink 794 is a community-driven project led by the 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, an organization created in 1996 with a focus on promoting Wisconsin's Smart Growth Comprehensive Planning Law. The group says tearing down the infrastructure and replacing it with a boulevard would open up roughly 32.5 acres of real estate and reconnect Milwaukee's downtown, Third Ward and lakefront.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is currently conducting an I-794 Lake Interchange study meant to address deteriorating infrastructure in a way to improve safety and operations without adding capacity on the corridor. It's also focused on ways to enhance community connectivity and compatibility with local plans and development. A price tag for revamping the existing infrastructure is said to be roughly $300 million.

"We think that opening this up to the street level will actually provide more access, multimodal access," said Taylor Korslin, an architect with Rethink 794. "We estimate it would be about $150 million to remove and replace with a boulevard. Compared to $300 million to replace what's there today and gain 10 acres, we'd argue, is a good trade-off."

Peter Park is a city planning expert who worked as the city of Milwaukee's planning director when the Park East Freeway was removed. He says the success from that project, which lead to billions of dollars going back to the downtown area, should be thought of now.

"This is the opportunity to remind everyone in Milwaukee that Milwaukee has done this," Park said. "Some of the basic principles in the plan focus on a more walkable city, more mobility choice and places for people. That's the fundamental ingredient on what makes great places, great cities, great destinations, and if you start with that as the priority, then the decision of the transportation is in service to making those great places."

Park says the interstate design doesn't belong in the heart of a city.

"It's a design for going hundreds, thousands of miles across the countryside to connect city to city," Park said. "The limited access highway in a city, especially in a downtown, is just fundamentally a design flaw. It's just the wrong design."

WisDOT says an estimated 26,600 vehicles traveled through the Lake Interchange daily in 2022. It's estimated a third of today's cars would continue to enter the proposed boulevard, a third would enter the city to the north and a third would enter to the south, dispersing traffic across the city.

Jim Plaisted is the executive director of the Historic Third Ward Association. He says while the discussions have been great regarding the future of the corridor, it's important to consider the impact tearing down the freeway could have on businesses in the short-term.

"The Third Ward is doing really well right now and is a success, despite the freeway deck being on our north end," Plaisted explained. "But we're going to be at the table and continue to engage with our constituents, as well as the greater downtown and regional interests in this project. As far as what it is today, there's nowhere to go but up."

WisDOT will host two public involvement meetings for the I-794 Lake Interchange study.

The first will be on Tuesday, Aug. 1, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Milwaukee Marriott Downtown, and the second will be on Wednesday, Aug. 2, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at St. Thomas More High School.

The meetings will be held in an open-house format and provide the opportunity for the public to understand the study process, learn about the project's purpose and need, and to provide input on design concepts.

For more information about the project, visit WisDOT's website here.

For more information about Rethink 794's proposal, visit the website here.

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