Civil rights, environmental, and faith groups file suit over I-94 expansion

Environmental, civil rights and social justice groups have joined forces in filing a federal lawsuit challenging the expansion of I-94 in Milwaukee.

Plaintiffs in the case contend that the I-94 construction project will “have the likely effect of exacerbating regional racial segregation” as well as “adverse environmental effects on air quality and water resources,” according to the court filing.

Plaintiffs in the case the 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.

The defendants named in the suit are heads of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation

The litigation focuses on plans to reconstruct and widen — by one lane in each direction — a 3.5-mile stretch of interstate highway between 16th Street and 70th Street.

Plaintiffs are asking the court to prohibit the use of federal funds for the project and to bar any action on it until defendants have resolved alleged violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and Administrative Procedure Act. That would require federal and state agencies to re-submit a Final Environmental Impact Statement that:

  • includes reasonable alternatives to the current plan, including a public transit component;
  • addresses the project’s social consequences;
  • and identifies ways to mitigate the harms done by the project.

Representing the plaintiffs, attorney Dennis Grzezinski said repairs are needed on the stretch of interstate highway at issue. But he described the proposed widening of the highway as “a billion dollar boondoggle” that, at best, would squander hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to save only a few minutes of rush-hour commuting time for drivers who live in the western suburbs and work downtown.

The cost of rebuilding the stretch in its existing footprint is $379 million, but the cost of expanding it to eight lanes from its current six-lane configuration is $1.106 billion (in dollars at the time of completion), according to the Final Environmental Impact Statement filed on the project.

Although Gov. Scott Walker has removed funding for the project from his current budget proposal, federal rules made it necessary to file the suit by March 6 in order to protect the plaintiffs’ case if the project is resurrected in the future, said Gary Goyke, legislative director of the Wisconsin Transportation Equity Alliance. His group is not a party in the case.

Editor’s Note: This story will be updated tomorrow.