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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Grassroots Group is Fighting Highway 164/J Redesign in Waukesha and Washington Counties

Wisconsin DOT wants to charge $10,000 for agency records on highway expansion

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A grassroots group critical of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s planned reconstruction of Highway 164/J in Waukesha and Washington counties alleges the $16 million project is illegal and unnecessary.

Five years ago, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman threw out the Wisconsin DOT’s proposed expansion for the same stretch of roadway, saying the state agency hadn’t properly studied the environmental impact of the project or viable alternatives or allowed the public to fully weigh in on it.

The 2009 decision was a huge victory for the grassroots, nonprofit Highway J Citizens Group, since it would force the DOT to change the way it conducts its business in all of its projects around the state.

But as the DOT plans to reconstruct that same highway in 2018, it doesn’t seem that much has changed, except that the fight over it has gotten more expensive.

The DOT is attempting to charge the Highway J Citizens Group more than $10,000 upfront to comply with the grassroots group’s open records request.

The group has asked Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne to step in to force the DOT to turn over its documents for no fee.

“One of the reasons why the DOT doesn’t want us to have these public records is what we do with them—we share them with the public,” said Jeff Gonyo, head of the citizens group. “And DOT gets caught in their own lies.”

 

$16 Million for an $8,000 Fix

The DOT has been attempting to alter Highway 164/J since Adelman’s decision, and the Highway J Citizens Group has fought back each time.

While the DOT claims that it plans to merely “reconstruct” Highway 164/J, the group contends that the DOT is laying the groundwork for the same expansion project that Adelman threw out multiple times in court.

The current project would allow the DOT to buy an estimated 55 acres of land from nearly 200 property owners, including 34 farms, in the same footprint as the original project; widen the traffic lanes, shoulder and clear zones; create a roundabout near the Friess Lake School in Richfield; and fill in wetlands and primary environmental corridors and polluting nearby lakes and rivers.

The DOT estimates the project would cost $16 million.

The DOT has only conducted an “environmental report” on the project, not a more extensive and detailed environmental impact statement.

DOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt, in an email to the Shepherd, wrote that the environmental report complies with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act (WEPA).

But Gonyo argues that the DOT needs to do a more thorough examination of the environmental impact of the project, one that’s in line with Judge Adelman’s original ruling.

“The DOT keeps recycling the same old project,” Gonyo said. “They change a little bit around the edges but it’s basically the same goal, that is, to expand the roadway ultimately to a four-lane highway through the Kettle Moraine area.”

Gonyo alleges the largely rural area would be better served by merely lowering the speed limit from 55 to 45 miles per hour. This modest fix would cost an estimated $8,000.

Gonyo keeps track of accidents and fatalities along that stretch of roadway. A reduced speed limit had been in effect from July through November 2000; the number of traffic accidents decreased by nearly 80% during that period.

Last month, a mother and father of five children were killed.

Gonyo argued that the cheaper alternative has the support of Republican elected officials from the area—and even the right-wing Citizens for a Responsible Government (CRG)—but it doesn’t mesh with the DOT’s and road builders’ expansion plans for Highway 164/J.

“If the accidents go away, then they have nothing left to cite as a reason for widening the roadway,” Gonyo said. “We want the accidents to go away and we want to do it in the most fiscally responsible and environmentally friendly and community-friendly manner—by reducing the speed limit.”

 

‘DOT Has a Total Disdain for the Public’

The latest skirmish in the Highway 164/J battle is over the cost to obtain state records about the project. The attorney for the Highway J Citizens Group and the Waukesha County Environmental Action League (WEAL) sent an open records request for Highway 164/J documents to the DOT and the Federal Highway Administration in February. The groups asked to have the records fee waived, since the information collected would be in the “public interest.”

In response, the DOT said it could locate the documents, but that it wouldn’t waive the fee and would need pre-payments of $7,820 for the paper records and $2,500 for the electronic records.

DOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt defended the DOT’s $10,000 price tag for the records.

“Wisconsin DOT takes its obligation to provide public records very seriously,” she wrote in an email. “Providing copies of records does cost time and money, and the Legislature has authorized agencies to recoup certain costs from the requestor, instead of placing this burden on the taxpayers.”

Gonyo said it’s outrageous for the DOT to attempt to charge the group $10,320 for documents created by a state agency—especially since the Federal Highway Agency turned over relevant documents for no fee whatsoever. He wants DA Ozanne—a Democratic candidate for attorney general—to step in if the DOT refuses to provide the records for free.

“The DOT has a total disdain for the public,” Gonyo said. “It’s almost like they detest anybody who disagrees with them.”