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Plaintiffs in I-94 Suit Say Highway Project is 'Racist in its Consequences'

Apr. 11, 2017
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Plaintiffs who recently filed a federal suit against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to stop a proposed $1 billion expansion of I-94 said state and federal decision-makers used misleading statements and faulty estimates to support a project they claim will harm minority communities by increasing pollution levels and restricting access to jobs. 

“Our complaint does not say that the decisions made with regard to this project are intentionally racially discriminatory,” said Dennis Grzezinski, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “We do say that the results of agency decisions on this project, and a whole series of projects that have preceded it, have [had] terribly disproportionately adverse impacts on minority individuals and communities. So, to that extent, the project, or the decision, is racist in its consequences.” 

The project, which has been in the works since 2014, would rebuild and expand 3.5 miles of highway from 16th Street to 70th Street. It would address congestion, safety concerns and the “deteriorated condition” of the freeway, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT), by adding lanes and changing the placement of exits and on-ramps. 

But representatives of the Milwaukee NAACP and John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club, who are co-plaintiffs in the case, NAACP v. Ross, claim WisDOT violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by ignoring more affordable alternatives that included expanding public transportation. The complaint documents public pledges by WisDOT to expand transit, which plaintiffs claim the agency has failed to uphold, while skirting federal requirements. Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) is also a plaintiff in the suit.

WisDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which is also listed as a defendant, declined to comment for this story, citing department policies regarding pending litigation. 

In 2000, the Campaign for a Sustainable Milwaukee sued WisDOT and Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, on behalf of seven individuals and 12 organizations. The suit alleged Thompson and WisDOT “conspired to use federal funds in a manner that adversely impacts complainants and other similarly-situated minority residents in the City of Milwaukee who are dependent upon public transportation for the necessities of life.” 

The resulting settlement included a pledge by WisDOT that it would assist the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) in an effort to improve public transit “to enable transit dependent residents of Milwaukee to better access areas of job growth.”

In 2013, MICAH and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin sued then-WisDOT head Mark Gottlieb, challenging a project to reconstruct the Zoo Interchange for reasons similar to the recent suit. That suit was settled in 2014 when the state agreed to spend $13.5 million to improve transit services, including the creation of three new bus routes that helped increase access to business centers in Wauwatosa, Brookfield and Menomonee Falls. That funding will run out by the time construction would be slated to start on the East-West expansion.

The NAACP suit claims that WisDOT, FHWA and the U.S. Department of Transportation are in violation of these agreements, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an agency to produce an adequate analysis of a project’s environmental impact while thoroughly considering any alternatives. 

“So, that’s why the suits are continuously being filed,” said Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee NAACP. “Because the Department of Transportation, both federal and state, are not living up to what they agreed.”

“There are many, many layers to this,” said Sierra Club John Muir Chapter President Bill Davis. “There certainly is a race element to it that I think you can’t ignore.”


Segregation and Poverty

While Wisconsin’s unemployment rate currently stands at 3.9%—an entire point better than before the nationwide economic recession—the rate for Wisconsin’s African Americans is a staggering 19.9%, the highest in the nation, according to a 2015 Economic Policy Institute report. Milwaukee’s poverty rate of 29% is skewed by its populations of color—39.9% of African Americans and 31.8% of Hispanics live in poverty, compared to 14.8% of whites, a number that is on par with the national average. 

The complaint points to segregation as a factor that exacerbates these inequities, noting that, though just more than half of Milwaukee’s population is white, more than 90% of the surrounding counties—Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington—are white. Plaintiffs said the project will not provide African Americans and Latinos, who make up a majority of the study area’s population, better access to employment opportunities in outlying areas, to which access is limited for those utilizing public transit. 

According to a June 2005 study from the Employment and Training Institute at UW-Milwaukee, the most recent data available, only 45% of African American and Hispanic voting-age adults in Milwaukee County had a valid driver’s license. Among whites, that number was 73%.

The study also noted that 23% of Wisconsin residents over 65 did not have a driver’s license, and that whether an individual had a driver’s license or not was more important than a high school diploma when it came to determining self-sufficiency.

According to data from the most recent American Community Survey, 19.2% of Milwaukee households do not own a car. 

VISION 2050, a transportation plan released early this year by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, recommends a “significant improvement to and expansion of public transit.” According to the commission, the vision, which includes commuter rail, ride sharing and drastically expanded bus service, would decrease vehicle congestion, reduce carbon emissions, improve access to jobs and save more than $100 million a year in transit costs. 

Eve Smith, an African American Milwaukee resident and member of the NAACP-Milwaukee Branch Executive Board, does not own a car and rides the bus just about every day; she estimated she spends upwards of 25 hours a week on public transit. She said fluctuations in service not only affect her, personally, but people in “a variety of situations,” noting that convenient public transit access is “crucial” for those who do not have the means—financial or otherwise—to get around without it. 

“What about the people you see that’s [in] wheelchairs? What about the people we see that’s on the cane? What about the people that I see on the bus, who get on the bus who only have one leg?” she said. “What about the mother who may have ... five or six children?” 

Sherry Meeriwether, 65, who walks with a cane between bus stops as she transfers at 27th Street and Wisconsin Avenue, said she would prefer to have a car but can’t afford one. Meeriwether, who is retired but works part-time for a cleaning company, rides public transit three or four times a week. She doesn’t know many people in the area so carpooling isn’t an option for her. She said, “This is the only transportation I got.”

MCTS ridership has steadily declined since 2000, a trend that bucks the direction of public transit nationally. Officials with MCTS have said funding cuts and fare increases have added to the decline. Revenue also decreased after the County Board authorized free rides for seniors and individuals with disabilities in 2015.

In 2008, Milwaukee County voters narrowly approved a referendum to create a 1% sales tax that would have provided dedicated funding for public transit. The tax was not approved by the state legislature.

In an unexpected move, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did not include funding for the I-94 expansion in his 2017 budget. 

Davis said he doesn’t know whether funding for public transit in Milwaukee County will increase without a settlement similar to that in the Zoo Interchange case, but noted it will take investment to improve service. He added that the Sierra Club is advocating that resources currently slated for highway projects across the state be directed to public transit.

Davis said, “I think, if you do that, there would be significant [public transit] funding available ... not just for Milwaukee but for other parts of the state, as well.”


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