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Who Will the Zoo Interchange Benefit ?

$1.7 billion for freeway expansion, reduced funding for transit

Sep. 26, 2012
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  Does the $1.7 billion to be spent on the reconstruction and expansion of the Zoo Interchange represent a wise investment in Milwaukee’s infrastructure or yet another example of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s (WisDOT) disregard for local minority residents who rely on public transit?

WisDOT argues that the $1.7 billion project won’t harm Milwaukee's low-income and minority residents—although those who do not drive on the freeways won't benefit from the project, either.

But the Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, represented by the ACLU of Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates, have filed suit in federal court alleging that the state's investment in freeway expansion—while slashing funding for public transit and killing off regional transit authorities—is discriminatory.

If the Zoo Interchange project goes ahead as planned, it will have “the likely effect of exacerbating regional racial segregation, and it will have adverse environmental effects on air quality and water resources,” the suit alleges.

WisDOT declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.

In addition, ACLU attorney Karyn Rotker says WisDOT has been ignoring its actions’ impacts on minority and low-income residents, in violation of federal civil rights law.

“We would like to stop the Zoo Interchange reconstruction to deal with transportation overall in the sense of making sure that there is transit access—fair transit access—for communities of color, as well as all of the money going into highway construction,” Rotker said.


Eight Lanes, No Public Transit

Last week, WisDOT held two open houses at State Fair Park to allow the public to view maps and a model of the Zoo Interchange upgrade, which will take place from Burleigh Avenue on the north, 70th Street to the east, Lincoln Avenue to the south and 124th Street to the west. The project encompasses 9 freeway miles, more than double the 4 freeway miles upgraded in the Marquette Interchange rebuild.

Construction is beginning with the building of a temporary ramp at Wisconsin Avenue, but it will fully launch next year and continue through 2014. It will involve redesigned ramps, lanes expanded from six to eight in some portions, the rebuilding of adjacent roadways—including Highway 100 and Bluemound Road—and the relocation of transmission lines. Some shoulders will be 18 feet wide so that the system can add additional 12-foot lanes in the future.

One element not highlighted in WisDOT’s presentation is public transit. In fact, WisDOT didn’t seriously consider mass transit to be part of the Zoo Interchange upgrade, as those who witnessed WisDOT’s contentious meetings with members of the Milwaukee Common Council in 2009 will remember. The city has gone on record saying that it supports public transit options as part of the region’s comprehensive transportation upgrades. But WisDOT has failed to act on the city’s wishes.

You won’t find transit mentioned often in voluminous public documents about the Zoo Interchange project posted on WisDOT’s website, either. WisDOT provided statistics about those who take public transit to work (4.5% of workers in Milwaukee County and less than 1% in Waukesha, roughly the same number of workers in those areas who lack vehicles) and transit systems that are available in the region, but nowhere in the documents is a serious consideration of transit as part of the region's transportation mix—even in the section devoted to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which WisDOT says will be lowered through “appropriate land use and zoning policies” and more efficient vehicles, not increased mass transit usage.

WisDOT does explain that the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC)’s 2035 transportation plan supports increasing public transit 100%, but then it goes on to state that SEWRPC doesn’t implement any of its recommendations. Instead, state legislators and WisDOT create transportation policy. They have provided $118 million for mass transit systems around the state in 2011 and $106 million in 2012 and will distribute $106 million in 2013—annual contributions that are less than one-tenth of the Zoo Interchange’s $1.7 billion rebuild.

And what about the Zoo Interchange’s impact on residents, especially minorities and those with low incomes?

“The race and income of those who would benefit from the proposed action [expanding the Zoo Interchange] is difficult to assess, and impossible to quantify,” one WisDOT document reads. “The demographics of those who live near the study area freeway system indicate that relatively few minorities live in the study area [within 1 mile from the center of the project] compared to Milwaukee County as a whole. Median household income of residents in the study area is higher than average.”


The Freeway-Transit Gap Is Increasing

The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit have a very different take on the Zoo Interchange expansion, specifically, and WisDOT’s priorities in general. The plaintiffs are troubled by the state and WisDOT’s decision to go ahead with an expensive freeway expansion at the same time Gov. Scott Walker and the state Legislature killed off regional transit, slashed funding for mass transit that serves minorities and low-income residents, and eliminated a $100 million capital bonding program for transit in southeastern Wisconsin.

“In that SEWRPC report [the 2035 plan], they said, if we invest in transit and roads at the same rate, we can achieve equity,” Rotker said. “Instead, what’s happening is an open jaw. Transit is lowering while road projects go up. The gap is actually increasing. We think that’s really problematic.”

Milwaukee’s minority and low-income residents simply aren’t getting their fair share of federally and state-funded transportation projects, Rotker said. The ultimate beneficiaries of the Zoo Interchange expansion are more affluent white people who will be able to drive more easily between Milwaukee and Waukesha, where jobs will be created. Indeed—WisDOT’s own documents state that SEWRPC calculates that Milwaukee County will see only 300 new jobs between 2000 and 2035, while a whopping 76,400 jobs will be created in Waukesha County in the same period.

The greater Milwaukee area has long been the nation’s most racially segregated region in the United States for African Americans, the plaintiffs write. African Americans comprise 26% of Milwaukee County residents, yet are a mere 1% of the population of surrounding counties. And only 68% of Milwaukee’s African-American households have a vehicle and 60% of African-American residents have a driver’s license—far less than white residents. Latino residents fare slightly better than African-American Milwaukeeans, but are still more transit-dependent than white Milwaukeeans. African Americans in Milwaukee are also more likely to suffer from asthma, most likely related to air pollution.

“Although there are many jobs, and significant job growth in suburbs outside Milwaukee, including in Waukesha County, there is little transit service from Milwaukee County to Waukesha County or other suburbs,” the plaintiffs write. “Further, virtually all the minimal transit service that exists is structured for Waukesha County residents to commute to jobs in a few portions of Milwaukee, especially downtown, rather than for Milwaukee residents to access jobs in Waukesha County. In recent years, there also has been a reduction in the already limited amount of Waukesha-Milwaukee transit service.”


A Pattern of Ignoring Civil Rights

Rotker said the Zoo Interchange’s rebuild is yet another example of WisDOT’s failure to address civil rights in its policy decisions.

She pointed to a race discrimination complaint that was settled in 2000, in which WisDOT agreed to expand and improve transit within metro Milwaukee “to enable transit-dependent residents of Milwaukee to better access areas of job growth.”

Instead of expanding transit, since 2000 the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) has eliminated 21 bus routes, four Freeway Flyer routes, and reduced the hours, miles and frequency of service. Research conducted at UW-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development shows that between 2001 and 2007, 1,700 employers and 40,000 jobs in Milwaukee County became unreachable by MCTS riders.

Rotker is also deeply concerned about WisDOT’s apparent disregard for federal civil rights laws. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act bars any entity that receives federal funding from taking actions that discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.

To ensure compliance with Title VI, an agency that receives federal funds, such as WisDOT, must create and submit annual Title VI implementing plans.

But Rotker discovered that WisDOT hadn’t had an annual plan since 2004, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had apparently allowed this oversight to continue through 2011.

In July, representatives of FHWA conducted an audit of WisDOT’s Title VI program, placed it in deficiency status, and gave the agency 90 days to correct its problems. According to the audit report, WisDOT seemed to think that hiring minority employees and contractors would meet federal standards. Ensuring that all of Wisconsin’s residents receive their fair share of taxpayer-funded transportation projects didn’t seem to be a priority. 


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