Construction Carnage: Human Cost Of The I-94 North-South Project

Readers say narrow lanes, uneven pavement, and no emergency lanes have made driving through I-94 construction "a nightmare."

(Scott Anderson, Patch Staff )

RACINE COUNTY, WI — If you feel that traveling on I-94 in southeastern Wisconsin through road construction is more dangerous than it has been in the past, you are not alone.

When Wisconsin Patch reached out to travelers about their experiences, we were bowled over with responses.

“I make a prayer every day I drive trough this stretch home, knowing one strong gust of wind or slight mistake could be deadly,” William Krahn of Waukesha told Patch.

Narrower lanes, uneven pavement, the lack of an emergency lane, heavy traffic volume and changing traffic patterns were all cited by Patch readers as reasons for higher anxiety when hitting the road.

Some drivers told us they grip the steering wheel a little tighter on their way to work, and pray that they don’t get into an accident. Others simply take a new route that avoids the highway.

“I think if there was a perfect answer, the State of Wisconsin would have come up with it,” Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said in a Journal Times report in August. “We’ve definitely learned during this construction process that it’s deadly to — we’re so busy, there’s so much traffic from the state line up to Milwaukee — that reducing it down to two lanes, or even three lanes now … without emergency shoulders, is a problem.”

The decision to leave out that emergency lane will allow workers to get the project done about one year faster, Michael Pyritz, Wisconsin Department of Transportation spokesperson said in a WUWM report from earlier this year. Construction officials argue that the less time it takes to complete the project, the fewer accidents there will be.

According to data obtained by Patch from the DOT, the number of crashes during construction is up. Construction on an 18-mile stretch of I-94 spanning three counties began in 2018. The chart below shows the accident volume prior to and during construction.


 

The Project At A Glance

The I-94 North-South construction project began in 2009, and exists along an 35-mile stretch of freeway from the Mitchell Interchange in Milwaukee to the Illinois state line. It stretches through Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties, and is divided into three segments. Construction is expected to last until 2021 and have an overall cost of $1.65 billion. An 18-mile stretch is currently under construction.

 


Racine County Hit The Hardest

According to the data, of the three counties that have been affected by road construction, road crashes have hit Racine County the hardest. According to figures provided by transportation officials, Racine County suffered 703 accidents in the I-94 construction zone between June 2016 and June 2019. Milwaukee County saw 368 accidents over that period and Kenosha County 231 accidents.

Jodi Switalksi of Caledonia says simply living by the interstate has changed her life. “I live right off the East Frontage Road and we hear sirens several times a day now due to all the accidents,” she said. “Some days I can’t even leave my house because the traffic is re-routed on the streets around me and are so backed up you can’t get out.”

According to data obtained from state transportation officials earlier this year by the Racine Journal Times, one-fourth of all I-94 crashes over the last 10 years in Racine County came in the last 12 months.

That means it took nine years to tally 1,405 crashes. In a busy year of construction, it took 12 months to tally 492 more.

Motorists driving on I-94 have temporary concrete barriers to their left and right that are just a few feet away from them. (Scott Anderson, Patch staff)

 

Lane Widths An Issue

By Memorial Day 2019, the DOT re-opened key stretches of I-94 in Racine County — adding a third traffic lane instead of two. Federal Interstate Highway standards use a 12-foot standard lane width. When officials re-opened I-94 with three lanes, they reduced the width to 11 feet across, and reduced the speed limit from 70 miles per hour to 60 miles per hour.

It’s led to a tighter squeeze for many vehicles, including larger vehicles such as semi trucks and construction equipment. The standard width of an 18-wheeled semi truck is eight feet, six inches.

Yet in a WISN-12 News report from earlier this year, a reporter measured the width of a semi truck from the outer edge of the mirrors and found it was actually about 10 feet 10 inches wide, which only leaves two inches to spare. “Is there a problem with the way this was designed?” the reporter asked Wisconsin DOT spokesman Michael Pyritz. “No, there’s not a flaw in the design. We’re maximizing the space that we have,” he told WISN-12.

In a WUWM article earlier this year, Pyritz said switching from two lanes to three lanes in each direction led to a 15 percent reduction in accidents overall, but has come at the expense of seeing single-vehicle accidents increase by more than 66 percent. Pyritz said many of those accidents have come from vehicle hitting concrete barriers to the left and right of the traffic lanes.

Major stretches of the I-94 North-South construction zone do not have emergency lanes. Instead of a four-foot shoulder to the left and a 10-foot shoulder to the right, there are temporary concrete barriers immediately on each side of the driving lanes.

Photo By Scott Anderson, Patch Staff

Deadly Crash Magnifies Issues

One crash in mid-June 2019 brought I-94’s work zone worries into sharp focus when a routine traffic incident escalated into a deadly crash.

On the morning of June 19, a deadly chain reaction crash near the Highway K overpass in Racine County resulted in two deaths, a fiery crash, teams of investigators and cleanup crews and a glut of motorists that poured onto surface streets, inundating traffic in the entire I-94 corridor in Racine County.

I-94 traffic camera footage of the accident via the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling could only sum up the crash in one sentence: “In my 24 years of being on this job, this was the worst accident I have ever seen.”

Investigators said the driver of a semi truck was heading south when one of its tires blew out. The semi careened into a temporary construction barrier, over-corrected and crashed into a median that separated the two directions of traffic. The tragic scene instantly magnified as a semi heading north collided with the dislodged barrier, but not before an evasive maneuver by the driver resulted in the semi swinging wildly to the east. The semi careened over the east wall and down a hill onto the street below.

Authorities said both semi trailers — the one going north and the other going south — ended up bursting into flames and setting other cars on fire. The dark plumes of smoke could be seen for miles.

“There’s no secret, I-94 is under extreme construction,” Schmaling said during Wednesday’s press conference. “We’ve been experiencing a lot of crashes, as you can imagine. We’re used to traveling 70 miles an hour. I think if we followed some basic rules, allowed enough distance to stop, it would prevent us from getting into accidents.”

Drivers Speed Through Work Zones Anyway

Although the dangers of traveling along I-94 in the work zone are apparent, the Racine County Sheriff’s Office says motorists are still inclined to speed through the area.

During a three-day period in August, deputies reportedly netted an astonishing 81 drivers for speeding at least 20 miles per hour over the 60 mile per hour speed limit in work zones.

The sheriff’s office said that between Friday, Aug. 16, and Sunday, Aug. 18, deputies pulled over 77 drivers for traveling between 80-89 miles per hour, two drivers for speeding between 95 to 99 miles per hour and two drivers for speeding more than 100 miles per hour in the work zones.

“These speeds are dangerous for everyone. We are asking our motoring public to use common sense and follow the speed limit in construction zones. The few minutes that you may save by speeding is not worth the risk,”Schmaling said of the speed wave enforcement.

Readers Sound Off

Wisconsin Patch put a call out to our readers in southeastern Wisconsin asking their opinions on what it’s like to drive the I-94 corridor in the work zone. These are comments from readers from the people who travel this stretch of Interstate every day.

Joe Hipp, Oak Creek

It’s a nightmare. I haven’t read any other comments but my reasons are:

1. No shoulders on either side of the highway for long stretches. As we’ve seen, this creates nightmares for emergency vehicles, first responders, etc when an accident occurs.

2. Lanes are uneven. Cars are bouncing all over the road because of how poorly the roads are not leveled.

3. Lanes too narrow for semis. Refer back to points number two and number one as to why this poses a serious risk to drivers.

In short, whoever came up with this design should have their credentials revoked. It’s that bad.

Dawn Marie, Oak Creek

I drove on this for the first time last evening. Aka… no cars, very light traffic… it is absolutely horrible, scary and dangerous. There is absolutely NO room for error on such a long stretch of highway. No room to escape. I seriously prayed for all the the family’s that lost loved ones due to such a poor system. I saw semis that were doing NOTHING wrong other than simply being TOO big to be on such a narrow stretch of highway. They were coming in and out of their lanes simply because it is TOO NARROW! I can’t even imagine driving this in rush hour.

Alicia Pavlopoulos, Oak Creek

Scary. Roads are uneven. Constantly changing. No one pays attention to the lines and closures which cause backups and people cause so many accidents because of lack of common sense I will go completely out of my way just to AVOID this mess

Alex Paulson, Waukesha

I drive a big truck up and down that part a few times a week. I’ve seen it all trucks running in the right lane cars flying past me like I’m standing still other big trucks flying past me in the right lane. The lanes are really narrow which leaves no room for error in a car much less a semi. On top of that the road it self is a patch job from Drexel to just after seven mile road. You get thrown around due to the [bad] temporary asphalt job. If I have the time i just go around and take 36, 32, 75 another way but that’s if I have time.

William Krahn, Waukesha

I make a prayer everyday I drive trough this stretch home, knowing one strong gust of wind or slight mistake could be deadly. I wish I-794 was expanded first, this is negligence from the state of Wisconsin.

Chris Morales, Racine

My daughter and I travel this stretch for work every day. I’m going north and she is going south. We call each other (by Bluetooth) to give each other a heads up regarding accidents and to take alternate routes almost daily. It’s frustrating and scary driving this stretch. It’s too narrow and no room for any kind of error.

Corry McCarthy, Mount Pleasant

I drive from Racine to Franklin for work.

I constantly see semis driving in all three lanes and when they hit an uneven surface their back end will sway into the next lane especially the FedEx Semis that have two trailers. There is no room for error if you are driving in the far left lane and you notice a shredded tire or a 2×4 you can’t swerve to miss it unless there is no one in the center lane.

The cement medians have tons of trash lined against them for three weeks — I drove past a full size box spring, during that time the freeway would be shut down so no one thought to pick up pieces of wood, shredded tires or the box spring? Nope. A lot of people say the speeders are causing the crashes… I think it’s the big semis that have no room.

I have seen so many accidents involving big trucks… a FedEx truck had a flat that caused everyone to merge down to one lane because they can’t pull over to the shoulder because there isn’t one just a cement barricade. I wish I had a dashcam to record what I see. Every morning I have to GPS my route to work so I know what exits are open and what exits are closed. It’s a headache.

Jodi Switalski, Caledonia

Horrible! I live right off the East Frontage Rd & we hear sirens several times a day now due to all the accidents. Lanes are too narrow & with no emergency lane any type of incident shuts the freeway down for hours. Some days I can’t even leave my house because the traffic is re-routed on the streets around me & are so backed up you can’t get out. They have way too many areas shut down at the same time with no good alternate routes. With all the construction projects I’ve seen over the years, I’ve never seen one as poorly planned as this one.


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