MICAH lawsuit challenges $1.7 expansion of Zoo Interchange at expense of public transit and minority jobs

Groups sue to block reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange

By This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. of the Journal Sentinel - Aug. 9, 2012

Milwaukee community organizations are suing to block reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange, accusing state and federal transportation officials of discriminating against urban minorities by not including public transit improvements in the $1.7 billion freeway project.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Madison, argues the project will "have the likely effect of exacerbating regional racial segregation, and it will have adverse environmental effects on air quality and water resources. . . . If the project proceeds, it will have major and significant impacts on the most racially segregated region in the United States."

Plans call for the state Department of Transportation to rebuild the western Milwaukee County crossroads of I-94, I-894 and U.S. Highway 45 from 2015 through 2018, with related work on adjacent streets starting Monday. Because federal aid is expected to cover much of the cost, state officials were required to obtain federal approval for their evaluation of the project's environmental impact.

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates filed suit earlier this week against the state and federal transportation departments on behalf of Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin.

Mike Pyritz, spokesman for the state Transportation Department's Southeastern Region, declined to comment on the litigation. Federal highway officials did not return a call seeking comment.

The lawsuit argues the project violates environmental justice rules, which prohibit federally funded projects from discriminating against minorities.

In the Milwaukee area, many African-American and Hispanic residents depend on buses, because only 60% of black adults and 50% of Hispanic adults have driver's licenses, says the lawsuit, citing 2006 research by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. Combined with disproportionately high unemployment among minorities, that means they need public transit to reach jobs in the predominantly white suburbs, the suit says.

Yet from 2000 to early 2012, the Milwaukee County Transit System eliminated 25 bus routes and cut back many others, while the state cut transit aid, boosted highway funding and dismantled the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority, the lawsuit notes.

The lawsuit claims that pattern violated the terms of the 2000 settlement of a federal civil rights complaint that alleged state officials discriminated by favoring highway projects that benefited white suburbanites while opposing a light-rail system that could have benefited urban minorities. In that agreement, state officials agreed to help improve area transit, including cooperation with what later became the Milwaukee streetcar plan.

"It's really trying to correct the incredible imbalance between the vast sums that are being spent on this and other freeway projects and the ongoing deterioration and dismantlement of the transit structure to serve those who don't have cars," environmental attorney Dennis Grzezinski said of the lawsuit he helped file.

Another concern is that the Zoo Interchange is being built with the capacity to expand if six-lane freeways are later widened to eight lanes, the lawsuit says.

That would bring more traffic and boost air pollution, at a time when "persons of color in the region, especially African-Americans, have higher rates of air-quality-related respiratory disease, such as asthma, than white persons."

Boosting the amount of pavement also would increase concerns about storm water runoff, the suit says.

ACLU attorneys, transit advocates and community organizations have voiced similar complaints about freeway expansion for years, dating back to the planning commission's 2003 development of an overall plan for rebuilding the area's aging freeways. Another major component of that plan, rebuilding I-94 from Milwaukee's south side to the Illinois line, started in 2009 and is expected to continue through 2021, at a cost of id="mce_marker".9 billion.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb.

This story originally appeared in the Milwaukee, WI Journal Sentinel (JS Online) on August 9, 2012 and is available here: http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/groups-sue-to-block-reconstruction-of-the-zoo-interchange-dj6ehfo-165653316.html