Off Ramp

Former Mayor John Norquist’s anti-freeway militancy runs through his life like a double yellow line.

Interview by Dan Shafer; edited by Kurt Chandler


When John Norquist ran for the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1974, a big part of his election campaign was to stop the extension of the County Stadium freeway through the heart of West Milwaukee. As mayor, he (successfully) lobbied the state to tear down the Park East freeway spur and (unsuccessfully) fought to dismantle the I-794 overpass along the edge of the Third Ward, an overpass now being expanded. As president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, he backed bicycles and walking paths over multi-laned expressways.

On Feb. 10, the Milwaukee Common Council approved a long-debated plan to construct a 2.5-mile streetcar route in Downtown Milwaukee. A week later, the state Department of Transportation rolled out a proposal to expand I-94 between 16th and 70th streets to eight lanes.

Norquist, now semi-retired at age 65, and living and teaching in Chicago, spoke to Milwaukee Magazine recently about both projects.


You’ve been a supporter of the Milwaukee streetcar. Why?

It will make the city more valuable. Transit adds values to cities. In Milwaukee, the older parts of the city particularly were built around streetcar lines. The population density of Milwaukee is higher than most of the cities who’ve added transit recently, like Salt Lake City, which has almost 100 kilometers of light rail now and a streetcar line as well. Milwaukee has higher population density than Portland, Ore., which has invested tons of money in transit, and it’s paid off. It’s got a fast-growing population. It’s a very successful city… Phoenix, Houston, Albuquerque, all the Sun Belt cities. Even in the Midwest, Minneapolis has a very successful line.


What impact will the Milwaukee streetcar have on the metro area?

It’s not going to be a dramatic overnight kind of thing, but it’ll help real estate values. When they tore out the streetcars in 1958, when the last line was taken out of Downtown, real estate values suffered from it. Instead of being the hub of retail commerce, it became a place where retail dies. You need a good transit system to have a good downtown.

The streetcar is the right investment in transportation, and it’s a lot better than the billions of dollars you’re wasting on the freeway stuff, which is actually going to hurt Milwaukee, not help it. It’s going to hurt the whole metropolitan area, too. If you’re a suburb of a successful city, your incomes are higher and your property values are higher than suburbs of a city that’s not successful. Suburbs of San Francisco have very high incomes, so does San Francisco. Detroit is a place where the incomes are really low in the city, and they’re not very high in most of the suburbs… It doesn’t help Waukesha at all to try to block Milwaukee from making progress. It degrades Waukesha. If Milwaukee was really rich, then Waukesha would be richer.

The most successful city in North America, in terms of real estate over the last 20 years, is Vancouver, British Columbia, which has an elaborate rail transit system and no freeways whatsoever. They never built any. It’s a city that’s about the same size as Milwaukee and it’s really worked well.


What do you think of the state Department of Transportation’s expansions of the freeway system in Milwaukee County?

If you compare it to all the money that’s being wasted widening I-94 and damaging the Story Park neighborhood, it’ll create about a five-year traffic jam for Brewers games. And then with the Zoo Interchange and the Marquette Interchange, you’re talking altogether over $3 billion being spent that won’t add any value to the city whatsoever. It’s just about moving vehicles so Schneider Trucking can drive to Gary, Ind., a little faster from Green Bay. It’s absurd. The Wisconsin DOT is one of the most backwards DOTs in the country. They have a very auto-centric view of the world.

I don’t know what model [Gov. Scott] Walker and the state DOT want to follow, but they’re sort of following the Michigan DOT model. The only other city where they’re widening an interstate within a city right now is Detroit. They’re widening I-94 to the cost of $1.6 billion. Detroit is bankrupt, or was bankrupt. And the state’s going to spend $1.6 billion widening I-94, which seems absurd to just about anybody except for the Michigan DOT.


Milwaukee has never warmed up to rail. Will people ride the streetcar?

I suspect it’ll be very successful. I don’t know any community that’s built rail transit or streetcars that’s regretted it. Dallas built their first streetcar line over 25 years ago. They now have over 100 miles of light rail and streetcar, and there’s no one talking about taking it out — they’re expanding it. Houston has over 100 miles planned and they’ve got 14 miles built. Denver, Colo., is a booming place.

Young people today, millennials, they don’t want to live an auto-only life. It’s not that they don’t want anything to do with cars at all — although there’s a few of them like that — but their attitude has changed. They want options. It can be walking, it can be Uber, it can be taking the bus, it can be streetcars and rail. Streetcars and rail tend to have a little more attractiveness to transportation consumers than riding a bus.

One of the reasons London has such great bus service is because it has “The Tube.” They work together. The opponents of transit always want to say that it’s either/or. They attribute nothing but cost to rail transit but attribute nothing but benefits to highway building. Unfortunately, that’s a common argument, particularly from people who come from far-out suburbs. Then there’s guys like [Milwaukee alderman and streetcar opponent Bob] Donovan. He wanted to widen Layton Boulevard, which would’ve taken all the trees down on Layton Boulevard. Fortunately, we outmaneuvered him on that one. That was while I was still mayor. He’s a “get-off-my-lawn” kind of politician.

[Removing urban transit] is like taking the bones out of a body. Milwaukee once had 350 miles of streetcar. It had 110 miles of interurban rail. The city was very vibrant and then, in order to speed up traffic, they basically took all that stuff out. Putting it back is a good idea.



Dan Shafer was the digital editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Dan joined the magazine as assistant editor in 2014 and wrote the November 2014 cover story, "Downtown Horizons." He's worked as a reporter at BizTimes Milwaukee and an editor at ThirdCoast Digest. Contact him at He's on Twitter @danshaferMKE.