7 reasons why removing I-794 would be a boon for downtown Milwaukee | Opinion

It’s time to think boldly about what Milwaukee should look like decades to come. The removal of 794 will be a resounding success for downtown.

Taylor Korslin
Special to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is studying options for rebuilding or removing Interstate-794 between the Hoan Bridge and the Marquette Interchange. The Hoan Bridge would remain in all scenarios.

Options include replacing the elevated freeway between the Hoan Bridge and the Milwaukee Public Market (a section of the highway at the end of its lifespan), or removing the elevated freeway through downtown altogether. So why remove it anyway? Here are 7 reasons why 794 should come down:

794 wouldn't be built today. People want to stay downtown.

I-794 is infrastructure from an era when people vacated downtown for the suburbs. In the ‘70s, parking lots bordered Lake Michigan and transportation planners aimed to loop Downtown with interstates. 794 and Park-East (removed in 2003) are remnants of the failed loop plan.

A different view:I-794 removal would restore bridge to nowhere, hurt Bay View neighborhood

Today, people want to live and work in Milwaukee’s vibrant downtown again. The Third Ward is now one of the most densely populated and pedestrian friendly places in Wisconsin. And headquarters are consolidating downtown to compete with cities like Minneapolis, Denver, and Chicago for young professionals who continue to leave Wisconsin after college. If 794 wouldn’t be built through downtown today, why reconstruct it?

The current interstate is overbuilt and underutilized

A DOT consultant concluded “I-794 is oversized for its current and projected traffic.” While I-794 and I-43 are similar in number of lanes, 794 carries half as much traffic. The majority of that traffic uses 794 to access downtown instead of passing through it. So, this stretch of interstate largely  acts as an extended off-ramp and only carries half the cars it could.

The ugly elevated highway needlessly divides downtown

Fourteen city blocks in the center of the city are dedicated solely to cars. This gap in the city, and the infrastructure that looms overhead separates downtown, the Third Ward and the lakefront. It diminishes the vibrancy of downtown and abruptly cuts off the excellent pedestrian experience that defines the Third Ward.

One vision of what could replace I-794 to reconnect downtown, the Third Ward and the lakefront with buildings and public space. Rendering by Taylor Korslin.

Replacing 794 with city streets, public space, office, retail and housing would strengthen those neighborhoods and provide new opportunities in a place with exceptional access to transit, recreation and cultural activities.

Removing interstate makes traffic simpler and safer

I-794 drops traffic into the center of downtown at interstate-speeds creating unsafe conditions on city streets. This disconnect between traffic speeds, and the confusing on/off ramps cause unnecessary crashes every year. If instead, cars drove on city streets surrounded by buildings and trees, those social-cues would reduce speeds and calm traffic throughout downtown and the Third Ward. The removal option simplifies how highway ramps and city streets meet, making them easier to navigate.

Plenty of options exist for vehicles to get around city

Replacing this stretch of 794 with city streets will actually improve access. It expands route options and disperses traffic across neighboring streets. More available routes means you travel more directly to your destination. The DOT estimates that one third of current 794 traffic would continue to enter the city where 794 is now. That traffic would disperse across many streets, including 6th street, Clybourn, St. Paul, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Plankinton. Clybourn would likely be expanded to a four lane boulevard, designed like the block nearest the lake.

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The DOT anticipates the other two thirds of cars currently using 794 exits would spread throughout the city to exits north and south. Without 794 cutting through downtown, trucks from Jones Island would likely route on Becher/Bay Street as it would be a more direct route to the Interstate system.

And additional travel time wouldn’t exceed a few minutes. We’ve tested it and you can too: at rush hour it takes 2 minutes from the lakeshore to the Marquette Interchange on 794, while the same drive on city streets averages 5.5 minutes. After all, it's less than one mile of roadway.

Rethink 794 supports a plan to remove the freeway between the Hoan Bridge's northern approach and Sixth Street.

Removing 794 will help save and generate tax dollars

It's likely that removal will cost less than replacement. It will also cost less to maintain overtime. Not only does it save on spending upfront, but the city and state would see the land be tax producing. 

If removed, the rest of Interstate 794 (from the Hoan Bridge south) would become part of Wisconsin Highway 794. Previously, this designation change could have cut federal dollars, but that is no longer a federal policy.

This is generational opportunity to enhance Milwaukee

It’s time to think boldly about what Milwaukee should look like decades to come. This is a generational opportunity to attract more business to the region, increase housing near transit and amenities, and create safe, vibrant, people-centered places in the heart of our city. If we look back in another 20 years, removal will be a resounding success for Milwaukee.

Taylor Korslin is a Milwaukee architect and volunteer with Rethink 794, a group advocating for the removal of the elevated highway.