Highways for Habitats #24: Zoo Interchange, Wisconsin

Zoo interchangeTransportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

As our inspiration post notes, Michigan is currently in the midst of a major highway debate, and we are not alone.  In other towns and cities across the country and world, similar conversations are taking place about the future of our road systems and our neighborhoods.

Environmental groups and attorneys in Wisconsin are fighting a planned interchange – the Zoo Interchange – outside Milwaukee (and near the city zoo).  Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation (WisDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) conceived of the project in 2008 to improve a busy confluence of three major highways that is over 40 years old.  Their project goals are to improve the deteriorating condition, update the design through removing left side exits and other flaws, accommodate EXPECTED traffic levels through 2035, and try to lower a high crash rate.   The plan includes completely rebuilding the interchange and expanding it at an estimated cost of $1.7 billion.

Project opponents agree that the interchange needs to be rebuilt.  But they take issue with the fact that the interchange is being built in one place, for the people of another place – the design does little to serve residents of the area. Instead, opponents argue the area needs is to better serve its own population, which is very public transportation dependent.  Opponents’ goal would be for the project to incorporate alternative and public transportation components to serve everyone.

Opponents argue that WisDOT and FHWA insufficiently analyzed environmental, social and economic impacts, and this is their avenue for a lawsuit.  A judge has made comment that the effects of the project on sprawl were inadequately considered, implying that the suit will move forward.

Many project proponents believe that alternative transit options should also be improved, but don’t think the interchange construction needs to be delayed to do so. They point to the fact that as Wisconsin’s busiest interchange, serving 350,000 cars daily, its condition needs immediate attention, and additional transit options can be included later.

Thought the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission recommended continued increases in transit service in the area, Midwest Environmental Advocates (a non-profit environmental law center) says the opposite has occurred, with transit routes cancelled and shortened; while state funding for transit has reduced over the last decade, highway project funding has grown.

Could this project inform the conversation about the social impacts of where we build highways, and how they are designed?


Photo from Wisconsin Department of Transportation.