A trio of Milwaukee groups is challenging the planning involved in the Interstate 94 east-west reconstruction project, arguing state and federal officials failed to incorporate public transportation elements and the potential impact on racial segregation and the environment.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Wisconsin by the NAACP Milwaukee branch, the Sierra Club John Muir Chapter and Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, seeks a declaration that officials failed to follow federal laws in approving the $1 billion project.
The project, which would reconstruct and expand the interstate between 16th and 70th streets, is on hold for now after Gov. Scott Walker proposed shifting funding to reconstruction of the north-south portion of I-94. The Legislature could potentially return the funding, but Walker has said he made the change because of concerns about a potential legal fight.
The lawsuit is similar to one filed in 2012 over the Zoo Interchange project. The complaint in the new case even appears to mistakenly reference the Zoo Interchange project in a passage with similar language to the 2012 case.
The Zoo lawsuit was eventually settled with the state Department of Transportation agreeing to pay $11.5 million to fund additional bus routes to help connect Milwaukee residents with jobs in the suburbs. The new lawsuit notes the money from the Zoo settlement will run out before construction begins on the east-west expansion.
MICAH was joined by the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin in filing the Zoo lawsuit and the NAACP and Sierra Club were not plaintiffs. The defendants are essentially the same offices, with the U.S. Department of Transportation and its secretary, state Department of Transportation secretary, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration and the head of the FHWA in Wisconsin all named.
The heart of the argument in the new case is that the project will “exacerbate” suburban sprawl, “perpetuate or exacerbate racial segregation” and have adverse health impacts on those living near the highway, a group the complaint describes as a primarily minority population.
“Defendants failed to meaningfully (or at all) evaluate many indirect and cumulative effects of the project, especially as to (how) those affect communities of color,” the complaint says. “Instead, the (Final Environmental Impact Statement) repeatedly subsumes issues of race under income, stating these are problems of for example, ‘low income people’ or ‘low skilled workers,’ rather than addressing the well-documented, specific effects on communities of color.”
The complaint says the cumulative effects should have been studied more closely.
“An agency – including these specific agencies, who were instructed as such nearly four years ago – cannot simply state that development will occur with or without the project, but instead must actually analyze the possible growth-inducing effects of a proposed highway project,” the complaint states.