The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is asking the federal government to rescind its decision to expand a section of Interstate-94 in Milwaukee, according to a co-attorney for the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging the expansion plan.
Environmental attorney Dennis Grzezinski of Milwaukee and Karyn Rotker of the ACLU of Wisconsin represent NAACP-Milwaukee Branch, the Sierra Club John Muir Chapter and the Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), a multi-racial interfaith organization that advocates for social justice.
Grzezinski received a copy of a letter dated Sept. 29 signed by WisDOT Secretary Dave Ross and sent to Wisconsin division administrator Michael Davies at the Federal Highway Administration.
The letter said, "WisDOT is requesting that FHWA rescind its approval of this project's Record of Decision," which was made in September 2016.
Ross wrote that "the Legislature must specifically authorize WisDOT to proceed with this project. As you are aware, Gov. (Scott) Walker has recently signed 2017 Act 59, the state's biennial budget for FY 2017-19. The budget did not authorize WisDot to advance the I-94 East-West project. It is unlikely that the Legislature would take action independent of the budget process to authorize the project during this legislative session. Moreover, the project's environmental document is currently in litigation. … Without statutory authorization to advance this project, pursuing this litigation presents an unnecessary expense for all parties involved."
Grzezinski told Wisconsin Gazette on Oct. 3 that he received the letter when he was awaiting receipt of the administrative record in the lawsuit.
He said the lawsuit will remain before the federal court, at least for now.
"At this point, we have to wait for the federal agency … to take the action that the state has asked for," he said. "I would hope and expect that that's a no-brainer and we'll find out in a matter of weeks."
Their litigation, brought to court in early March, challenges the plan to widen a 3.5-mile stretch of the interstate highway between 16th Street and 70th Street.
The plaintiffs in NAACP Milwaukee Chapter v Ross allege the highway construction project would have “adverse environmental effects on air quality and water resources,” as well as “the likely effect of exacerbating regional racial segregation,” according to the court filing.
The defendants named head up the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation and the suit challenges the record of decision-making and the environmental review process that led to approval of the project.
At the time of the filing, Grzezinski called the widening project was “a billion-dollar boondoggle."
The cost to rebuild the stretch in its existing footprint was estimated at $379 million, but the cost to expand it to eight lanes was placed at $1.106 billion, according to WisDOT.
At the center of the suit are environmental impacts not considered during planning for the project.
The expansion, for example, would increase highway run-off of oil and other vehicular fluids, polluting the immediate area and finding their way into the water table, according to WiG archives.
Also, increased auto emissions in the area would amplify air pollution.
Environmental hazards would disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos, who comprise 57.1 percent of the area surrounding the project, according to the complaint.
In addition, the expansion plan failed to consider adding a public transit component, either light rail or buses, which could decrease traffic on the interstate and achieve the goal of fewer traffic jams without exacerbating pollution.
Grzezinski said conclusions in the government's own studies should have been "a large and loud shoutout to the decision-makers that if they want to address congestion on regional highways, the way to do that is expanding and improving transit."
Another flaw, according to plaintiffs, is the case for widening the highway was based on faulty data.