Court Order May Force Wisconsin DOT To Improve Public Transit
Freeway upgrades without a transit commitment could violate federal law
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman found that the Wisconsin DOT likely violated federal law when it failed to adequately study the social and environmental impacts of its $1.71 billion plan to upgrade the interchange without a public transit component.
While Adelman’s decision is preliminary, he wrote that he would be unlikely to change his mind in the final order.
Adelman and the two parties will meet May 28 to determine a way forward.
It’s unlikely that Adelman’s ruling will completely block the Zoo Interchange upgrade, but he may put parts of the plan on hold while requiring the DOT to reassess its longstanding neglect of local and regional transit options.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Karyn Rotker—who is representing the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH)—said that the organizations are not opposed to reconstruction that would improve safety. But the groups are critical of expanding freeways while the state cuts off Milwaukee’s transit-dependent, low-income and minority residents from jobs in the suburbs, Rotker said, at the same time forcing Milwaukeeans to live with reduced air quality from freeway traffic.
“We’ve raised this issue many times before and it’s been ignored and we hope that now it will be taken seriously,” Rotker said.
State Ignored Transit Plans
Adelman found that the DOT had relied on a 2006 Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) plan to upgrade highway capacity but had ignored its recommendation to double the amount of public transit service in the region by 2035.
Instead, the state has killed off regional transit options and shortchanged local transit systems.
The DOT argued that the state’s investment in transit was beyond its control. (A DOT spokeswoman refused to comment on Adelman’s decision.)
But Adelman wrote that the agency must acknowledge that SEWRPC’s transit recommendations are not being implemented and also identify the potential environmental and social harm of this omission. The DOT must consider alternatives that could mitigate the negative effects of the state’s highway-building spree and potentially incorporate public transit into the Zoo Interchange project, such as rapid bus service between Milwaukee and Waukesha County, Adelman wrote.
Adelman’s order flies in the face of the Walker administration’s transportation priorities. Since Gov. Scott Walker’s election, the state has refused federal funds for high-speed rail, killed off regional transit authorities (RTAs), halted the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line and slashed state support for local bus systems.
The governor’s proposed biennial budget would further weaken the state’s commitment to public transit. Although the state has a budget surplus, Walker is proposing to add almost $1 billion in bonding debt to expand freeways, including the Zoo Interchange, while keeping in place his 10% cut to transit and making its future funding stream less reliable.
In addition, legislative Republicans are dealing what they hope is a deathblow to Milwaukee’s proposed streetcar project (and the city’s home rule authority) by requiring the city to cover the costs of moving utility lines.
More Freeway Expansion in the Works
As of this writing, the DOT is moving ahead with public meetings on expanding the east-west corridor of I-94 from 25th Street to 70th Street through the Story Hill, Merrill Park and Layton Boulevard West neighborhoods.
The DOT has provided a few options for this project, including a $1.2 billion expansion that would, among other things, create a double-deck freeway through Story Hill and upend graves in the Wood National Veterans Cemetery.
Milwaukee Ald. Robert Bauman called the public meetings a mistake since the logic of Adelman’s order could apply to the I-94 project, which impacts Milwaukee’s central city.
“I think it applies even more strongly” to I-94, Bauman said.
Bauman said he was concerned that the DOT would eliminate its $370 million option of rebuilding in I-94’s current footprint while pushing the $1.2 billion expansion on the public.
“I guess at the end of the day you can do that but you have to say you’re going to do that,” Bauman said. “And you’ve got to spell out the consequences of doing that on the overall region and the city. You’ve got to tell people we’re going to start hurting people and businesses and neighborhoods.”