Deer District shows dire warnings about tearing down highways have fallen flat | Opinion

WisDOT is considering several options for I-794 that fall into three buckets: improve it, replace it or tear it down entirely.

Kristin Brey
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

There are a handful of topics you know will rile people up: abortion, gun control, and, if you live in Southeast Wisconsin, what to do with I-794.  

If you've somehow managed to be in the dark on this debate, there is a question of what to do with the aging infrastructure of the I-794 lake interchange, which cuts through the heart of Milwaukee’s downtown. WisDOT is considering several options that fall into these three buckets: improve it, replace it or tear it down entirely.

Last week, a study was released to the public that gave a first look at where traffic would be diverted to if the mile stretch were to be torn down. While WisDOT has not made a decision yet, during a presentation last Tuesday, one of the project consultants noted that tearing down that mile stretch of 794 appears to be “the most feasible option”. If X/Twitter commentary and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Letters to the Editor on this topic are any indicators, tearing down the freeway will elate many while leaving plenty of people outraged.

But in order to gauge whether or not that outrage is justified, we should turn back the pages of Milwaukee history twenty years to the last time people were outraged about the removal of a mile stretch of road: Park East freeway.

One man, George Watts, was so angry about the potential of tearing it down that he first tried to recall Mayor John Norquist over it. When that didn't work, he ran against Norquist and centered this issues in his campaign. In one of his letters to the editor to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he went so far to say that  “taking away freeways like this would “give us the same despair that Third World countries have now.”

More perspectives on I-794 options:

7 reasons why:Removing I-794 would be a boon for downtown Milwaukee

Who wins from I-794 removal?Developers. Rest of us will be stuck in traffic.

Removing roads like I-794 can work:Just look at the Fiserv Forum.

794 removal would hurt Bay View.And revive the bridge to nowhere.

Looking around the Deer District today doesn't quite paint the image of the despair of a developing country. In the four years I've lived in Milwaukee, I'm not sure I have gotten into a traffic jam once around the McKinley and Knapp intersection, except that one time Disney on Ice was at the Fiserv. It's safe to say, no one misses the Park East Freeway.

As WisDOT continues to do their due diligence by developing alternative plans and producing more studies, they would be wise to also take history into account. This city has played almost this exact record before. As City of Milwaukee planner Peter Park has stated, historically, “every single time a freeway came down, a neighborhood got better and access got better.” For once, here's hoping we let history repeat itself.

Kristin Brey is the "My Take" columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.