All They Want in Milwaukee is a Little Rail

Opponents said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and 10 city aldermen were "extremely shortsighted" this week when they called on state officials to downsize a $1.9 billion plan for widening the I-94 highway.

But, if you champion a 21st century economic development agenda, as opposed to blindly clinging onto the same old ideas that got us in this Rust Belt mess in the first place, then you know these courageous elected officials are truly visionary.

Because what they appear to be fighting for is a comprehensive transportation solution that, in the long run, will do more to stem traffic congestion, grow the local economy, strengthen both urban and suburban neighborhoods, and conserve energy in Milwaukee than a bigger highway could ever do.

Here, briefly, is the story. The state Department of Transportation is pushing a $1.9 billion plan to build out I-94 from 6 to 8 lanes over a 37-mile stretch of the freeway from Mitchell Airport, just south of the city, to the Illinois border. Proponents say the proposal is critical to move goods and people between the increasingly busy corridor that connects Milwaukee and Chicago.

But the City of Milwaukee, like dozens of other cities struggling to rebuild their competitiveness for the knowledge economy, has ambitious plans to expand mass transit, accelerate urban redevelopment, and elevate quality of life to retain and attract young talent and modern companies.

A critical component of the city's transit plan is a commuter rail line that links passengers to Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine, northeastern Illinois, and Chicago. The proposed service would follow a similiar north-south alignment as the I-94 highway.

The freeway expansion plan, however, basically ignores mass transit. So, by a 10-4 vote, city leaders moved a resolution urging state transportation officials to consider "a more strategic approach to the WI DOT's funding of some of its major projects affecting Milwaukee."

Specifically, the city leaders called for "a collaborative approach and simultaneous funding of high-speed rail, light rail, and the expansion and reconstruction of I-94"

Mayor Tom Barrett said the approach was a fiscally responsible way to achieve a more balanced, comprehensive transportation system that gives people choices beyond the automobile.

But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorialized that the leaders were mistaken, and inferred that voters should hold them accountable for such reckless governing.