Environmental, civil rights and social justice groups jointly have filed a federal lawsuit in challenging the expansion of I-94 in Milwaukee.
The litigation focuses specifically on plans to widen — by one lane in each direction — a 3.5-mile stretch of the interstate highway between 16th Street and 70th Street.
The plaintiffs in NAACP Milwaukee Chapter v Ross (case number Case 2:17-CV-297) contend that the highway construction project will 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.
Plaintiffs include 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 are the current heads of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The suit challenges the record of decision-making and the entire environmental review process that led to approval of the I-94 expansion project.
“We think there are big areas that are just flat wrong,” said Bill Davis, director of the Sierra Club John Muir Chapter.
He and the other plaintiffs seek to prohibit the use of federal funds for the project and to bar any action on it until the defendants have resolved the legal violations alleged in the complaint. That means they would have to submit a new environmental impact statement that:
- includes reasonable alternatives to the current plan, including a public transit component;
- addresses the project’s legal environmental deficiencies and social consequences;
- and identifies ways to mitigate the harms that the project would create.
Representing the plaintiffs, attorney Dennis Grzezinski acknowledged that repairs are needed on the stretch of interstate highway at issue. But he described the proposed widening project as “a billion dollar boondoggle” that, at best, would squander hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to shave 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 was estimated at $379 million, but the cost of expanding it to eight lanes from its current six-lane configuration is $1.106 billion, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
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 if the project is resurrected in the future, according to Gary Goyke, legislative director of the Wisconsin Transportation Equity Alliance. His group is not a party in the case.
Environmental and racial issues
At the center of the suit are environmental impacts that the plaintiffs say were not considered in planning for the project, disqualifying it for federal funding.
The proposed expansion of I-94 would increase highway run-off tainted with oil and other vehicular fluids, which pollute the immediate area and find their way into the water table, Davis said.
Increased auto emissions in the area would amplify air pollution.
“We’ve got fact-based deficiencies in the planning of these projects,” Davis said.
The environmental hazards associated with I-94 would disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos, who comprise 57.1 percent of the area surrounding the project, according to the complaint.
The I-94 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. Public transit linking the city with the so-called “WOW” counties — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — would also increase access to the growing number of job opportunities in those suburbs, according to Fred Royal, director of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP.
“In those counties, they need workers but there’s no transit that will allow folks to get from Milwaukee out to where the jobs are in a reasonable amount of time,” Royal said. “You’ve got this labor pool, and you just can’t get it out there.”
The complaint states: “There are significant racial disparities in transit dependence in the … region, with persons of color being far less likely than whites to have valid driver’s licenses, and far more likely than whites to live in ‘zero vehicle’ households.”
Wisconsin’s black jobless rate is the worst in the nation. According to a 2015 study, the state’s rate was twice the overall national rate. Reports over the last five years have put the black male joblessness rate as high as 57 percent among working-age African-American males in Milwaukee.
Davis said it creates an “incredible imbalance … spending hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to shave a couple of minutes off the commute for well-off white folks, while at the same time the transportation services provided to people who use public transit are overwhelmingly poor and of color.”
The plaintiffs noted that projects such as the I-94 expansion increase the “hyper-segregation” that characterizes the region. As in many U.S. metropolitan areas, the interstate system fueled racial segregation in the first place. The highways made it easy for wealthy and middle-class people to flee living near people of color by relocating to the suburbs.
Another flaw with the project, according to plaintiffs, is that the case for widening the highway is based on faulty data.
In the past, WisDOT has been charged with using inflated figures to secure funding for unnecessary highway projects. In 2015, a federal court halted a major highway expansion of Highway 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth due to overblown traffic forecasts.
“Their traffic models here are based on an assumption that transit in the region is going to double,” Grzezinski said. “There’s no way in hell that’s going to happen.”
For one thing, automobile use has dramatically declined as the state’s population grows older and an increasing number of young people are more inclined to favor city life and less inclined toward automobile ownership. Between 1981 and 1991, the number of miles driven in Wisconsin grew by a rate of 35 percent. In contrast, the growth rate from 2003 to 2013 was zero, according to research conducted in 2015 for the group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.
While the low cost of gasoline in 2015 and 2016 has produced a bump in traffic, the state’s demographics are not changing.
Moreover, Grzezinski said that without a public transit component added to the project, it can’t possibly achieve its goal of eliminating stop-and-go rush-hour traffic if usage were indeed to double.
The lack of public transit also adversely impacts people with disabilities.
Many public officials support highway building because it creates jobs. But Royal argued that the jobs are transient and less efficient at generating economic activity than alternative solutions. For instance, he said repairing the state’s crumbling roads and infrastructure would also create jobs and enhance local economies at a time when the state’s roadways have been rated as the nation’s third worst.
“If you put the money into transit region-wide, the resulting economic activity would far outweigh the transient jobs created by projects like (widening I-94),” Royal said.
“Over the last dozen years or so there’s really been a growing move toward coalitions between civil rights, minority faith-based health groups and environmental organizations,” Royal said.
The highest profile example is the support that environmentalists gave to First Nation people protesting the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Sierra Club John Muir chapter worked with First Nation tribes to oppose a major pipeline in Wisconsin.
In November 2016, Earthjustice’s Denver office filed suit against the Colorado Department of Transportation on behalf of minority neighborhood associations and the Colorado Latino Forum over a project to widen I-70.
That lawsuit was based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits the allocation of federal dollars to projects that inflict disproportionate harm on communities of color.
Royal said there will be more joint efforts to address water and air quality issues, including efforts to stop the intentional location of polluters in minority areas. He said polluting manufacturing plants have shut down in predominantly white areas of Milwaukee and moved to African-American and poor communities.
“Part of that is because those communities don’t have the resources to fight back,” Royal said.
But now advocates for a clean environment and social justice are finding that they’re stronger together.