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How 3 Communities Fought Discriminatory Transportation Policies

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The Ohio faith-based advocacy group LEAD held demonstrations to protest the suburb of Beavercreek’s refusal to allow bus service. Photos: Policylink

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

To celebrate the occasion, PolicyLink and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights held a discussion this week about how that legislation has affected transportation policy. Three local community leaders shared stories about how they used legal protections to combat discriminatory transportation projects.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Advocates have been fighting for better transit in the Milwaukee region for about a decade, says the Wisconsin ACLU’s Karyn Rotker.

In the notoriously segregated Milwaukee region, nearly 50 percent of African Americans depend on transit. But regional leaders have severely limited transit access to the suburbs, which is especially problematic because Milwaukee’s suburbs have captured an increasing share of the region’s jobs over the last few decades.

“There are huge racial issues here as well as the urban sprawl issues,” said Rotker.

The Wisconsin DOT has been planning to rebuild and expand the “Zoo Interchange” near Milwaukee for the jaw-dropping sum of $1.7 billion. The ACLU, in partnership with some of the region’s civil rights groups, filed suit against WisDOT, alleging the project violated the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA. The complaint asserted that transit riders and transit-dependent communities were not considered in WisDOT’s planning process. They also alleged that the state failed to consider the “interrelated social effects” of expanding highway capacity, and the impact that was likely to have on sprawl and racial segregation in the region.

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Freeway Fight: Scott Walker Wants to Drag Milwaukee Back to 1956

The mayor and residents of Milwaukee are fighting a massive urban highway project backed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

This site, in Milwaukee's Story Hill neighborhood, is where the state is proposing a two-level freeway. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

This site, in Milwaukee’s Story Hill neighborhood, is where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants a two-level freeway. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

Citing traffic congestion, the state is forging ahead with a $1.2 billion plan to expand Interstate 94. One design under consideration would stack freeway lanes on top of freeway lanes, double-decker style. The state says such a design is necessary to avoid moving veterans’ graves in cemeteries near the site.

Residents of Milwaukee staged protests against the state’s plans for Interstate 94 this week, saying the money would be better spent on transit and local roads. Yesterday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel he opposes the double-decker design, saying it would hurt neighborhoods, and vowed to try to stop it.

“Not only will this option cost exorbitant sums of money, it will have a negative impact on property values and disrupt the lives of Story Hill neighborhood residents,” Barrett said in a statement. ”I continue to oppose the double deck option and will continue to pursue all options to prevent its construction.”

Despite his claims of fiscal conservatism, Walker has pursued a campaign of wildly expensive highway widenings in his almost four-year tenure. He said forgoing the highway expansion would cost jobs.

“The bottom line is I said we’re looking at all possible options,” Walker said. “The only one I have definitively taken off the table is we’re not moving graves for that site. I think it’s imperative we go forward.”

One alternative to the double-decker design is adding a lane in the highway’s shoulders and narrowing the existing lanes. But state officials say that wouldn’t add enough capacity for one of the slowest growing metro areas in the United States.

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Milwaukee Protesters Try to Halt Double-Decker Freeway

Monday night, as the Wisconsin DOT went through the motions of a Power Point presentation about the latest highway expansion it wants to gouge through Milwaukee, a groups of protesters outside the meeting shouted their frustration with an agency that has spent lavishly on roads to the exclusion of all other modes.

The protesters’ message was simple. “Stop the highway.” Instead of sinking a billion dollars into another highway that won’t solve the region’s transportation problems, they called for different options: better transit, walking, and biking connections.

Right now, the state is only thinking about cramming more cars into the Milwaukee transportation network. Wisconsin has settled on two options for the Interstate 94 corridor, and both involved widening 3.5 miles of highway. The first proposal is an eight-lane at-grade freeway. The second and even more ridiculous option is a double-decker freeway. WisDOT put forward this latter design out of a desire to add lanes — to “manage congestion” — without having to actually unearth the graves of veterans in the cemetery surrounding the road.

But the protesters, who represent a coalition of groups from around the state and Milwaukee, reject both of the alternatives. That’s why instead of attending the meeting on Monday, they were outside protesting. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation should go back to the drawing board, said Bruce Speight of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, one of the organizing groups.

“We don’t need to expand the highway,” he said. “We need to give people real options.”

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Milwaukee Transit Advocates Win $13.5 Million Settlement From State DOT

In a Wisconsin lawsuit that’s been closely watched by transportation reformers around the country, local advocates have extracted some resources for transit from a notoriously highway-obsessed state DOT.

After a court battle, the state of Wisconsin has agreed to provide $13.5 million for transit as part of the $1.7 billion "Zoo Interchange" project. Photo: Milwaukee Community Journal

After a court battle, the state of Wisconsin has agreed to provide $13.5 million for transit as part of the $1.7 billion “Zoo Interchange” project. Photo: Milwaukee Community Journal

Settling in federal court with Milwaukee civil rights groups, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation agreed to provide $13.5 million in transit funding as part of the enormous “Zoo Interchange” project.

The Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope had argued that the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange discriminates against people of color in the region, who disproportionately depend on transit.

A federal judge issued an interim ruling in favor of the plaintiffs last year, but allowed planning for the project to proceed. The negotiated settlement will provide $11.5 million over four years to expand bus service in the project area. It will also provide $2 million over four years to improve transit access more generally, through items like real-time arrival data.

“This is good news for a community that has the sad distinction of having a black male unemployment rate higher than 50 percent and the black/white employment gap being number one in the country,” said Patricia McManus of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin in a press release. “It is hoped that through the course of the funded four years, the importance of the routes will be readily seen by the involved counties and the state and efforts will be made to secure other funding for the continuation of the bus routes.”

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Earth Day Resolution: Stop Building Projects Like the Zoo Interchange

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Leading up to Earth Day, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Time Is Running Out,” lamenting the lack of urgency in the United States to prevent a very urgent problem: catastrophic climate change. Today, Brad Plumer at Vox explained why it may be too late to keep average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the threshold that climate scientists have been warning about.

There are many steps we’ll have to take to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But one of them is most definitely this: America has to stop spending billions on projects like Wisconsin’s Zoo Interchange and start getting serious about building places where people can get around by walking, biking, and taking transit.

The Zoo Interchange embodies America’s broken transportation spending system, which former US DOT official Beth Osborne described on Atlantic Cities today as “an entitlement for state departments of transportation to allocate for their own priorities.”

This single highway interchange, aimed at reducing delays for suburban car commuters in the nation’s 30th largest city, costs more than total federal spending on walking and biking annually.

The Zoo Interchange carries 300,000 cars per day. It is “Wisconsin’s oldest and busiest interchange,” according to the state. A big part of Wisconsin DOT’s justification for the Milwaukee interchange is “safety.” According to WisDOT, there were an average of 2.5 collisions a day on the interchange between 2000 and 2005, and nine were fatal.

By comparison, according to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, Americans make about 112 million walking trips daily. About 4,000 pedestrians are killed annually on American roads.

And yet, Wisconsin will spend more on this one sprawl-inducing highway project than the feds spend each year on all walking and biking projects combined.

Clearly, our priorities are out of whack — way out of whack.

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Train Maker Sues Wisconsin for $66 Million for Canceling Rail Project

Train maker Talgo is suing the state of Wisconsin for $65.9 million as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s decision to cancel passenger rail plans connecting Madison to Milwaukee.

Train maker Talgo is suing Wisconsin for $66 million over terminated contracts. Image: L.A. Times

Talgo claims that Wisconsin’s termination of contracts to build trains for the corridor resulted in $20 million in losses for the company, which has a manufacturing plant in Milwaukee. If the contract had been executed as planned, the company expected to earn $30 million in profits instead, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

In all, Talgo is seeking $65.9 million to cover $18.6 million in liquidated debt, as well as costs for labor, insurance, legal fees, testing that it says should have been paid by the state. The total includes other damages, including the cost to the firm’s reputation from state officials “continually defaming” it.

Walker was part of a group of Republican governors who refused federal grants for passenger rail projects following the 2010 elections. Walker said the state couldn’t afford to operate the trains, which would have cost the state as little as $7.5 million a year. Meanwhile, the state of Wisconsin is currently spending $1.7 billion on a single interchange.

The Tampa Tribune recently reported that, according to a Florida lawmaker, Governor Rick Scott’s refusal of federal rail funds was part of a coordinated strategy by Republican governors to batter President Obama.

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Poor Transit Access and Wisconsin’s Staggering Black Incarceration Rate

The state of Wisconsin imprisons a higher proportion of black men than any other state. Almost 13 percent of the state’s African American men are behind bars — nearly twice the national average. In Milwaukee County, according to a recent report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison [PDF], more than half of black men in their thirties have served time in state prison.

Recent transit funding cuts in Wisconsin could put more jobs out of reach for black men in Milwaukee. Image: Milwaukee Community Journal

UM-Madison’s John Pawasarat and Lois Quinn recently explored this problem as an aspect of the major workforce challenges facing the state. One of their key findings was that for black working-age men in the Milwaukee area, transportation barriers are a major obstacle to employment, restricting their prospects.

Among African Americans living in Milwaukee, 47 percent do not have a driver’s license, and the unemployment rate is 24 percent.

“Two-thirds of the county’s incarcerated African American men came from six zip codes in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee,” Pawasarat and Quinn write. “Most ex-offenders return from prison into inner city neighborhoods that have extremely large gaps (i.e., 25 to 1 in May 2009) between the number of active job seekers compared to available full-time work.”

Black men would have more employment options if jobs were accessible by transit. But that tends not to be the case, Quinn told BBC reporters.

“When we do job surveys, we find that three-fourths of the jobs that are available are outside the bus lines,” she said.

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It’s Tulsa vs. Milwaukee in the Parking Madness Championship!

This is it — the final, epic showdown of Parking Madness. We started with 16 reader-submitted contenders for the title of America’s Worst Parking Crater, and Milwaukee and Tulsa have emerged from three rounds of voting to face off in the championship.

Only one will be immortalized and receive the “Golden Crater,” Streetsblog’s prize for asphalt expanses run amok.

It’s up to you to decide who claims the title, based on the incriminating evidence we’ve compiled below. So let’s get acquainted (or reacquainted, as the case may be) with these two examples of parking devastation:

Downtown Tulsa has been a favorite from the start because of the sheer surface area devoted to parking. Stephen Lassiter of BikeWalkTulsa submitted this photo and told us that “the southern half of downtown is almost entirely surface parking,” as you can see below:

Lassiter also sent along photos showing this part of Tulsa in 1978 versus 2005.

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Final Four Parking Madness Matchup: Milwaukee vs. Dallas

We’re down to just four cities: Milwaukee, Dallas, Houston, and Tulsa. But only one can be the champion of Parking Madness, our hunt for the worst parking crater in an American downtown.

Today is a very exciting day, because we’re kicking off the Final Four with two venerable parking competitors: Milwaukee and Dallas.

Milwaukee has been holding strong through two contests — thanks, presumably, to the sheer expanse of its parking crater.

Reader “Aaron from Milwaukee” submitted this area, saying “the desert covers about a half mile south of I-794 to the Milwaukee River, and east of Milwaukee Street.”

This wasteland is part of Milwaukee’s Third Ward, not far from the lakefront. “It’s acres of parking over the former bustling wholesale food warehouse district, mostly serving eight or nine weekends and 10 full days each year associated with Summerfest and Milwaukee’s various ethnic ‘-fests,’” Aaron says.

Here’s a panned out view that shows this parking travesty’s position between the Third Ward and the lakefront.

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The “Elite Eight” of Parking Madness: Milwaukee vs. Columbia

So far, Texas is really dominating our Parking Madness tournament. The two Final Four spots awarded so far have gone to Lone Star heavyweights Dallas and Houston. We might have an all-Texas final.

But there are still two remaining spots in the Final Four of terrible downtown parking craters. One of those spots is going to go to either Milwaukee or Columbia, South Carolina — today’s Elite Eight match-up.

Let’s refresh ourselves with the Milwaukee parking crater:

Submitted by reader Aaron from Milwaukee, this one is not a crater so much as a lunar landscape bereft of human life forms.

The area is between Milwaukee’s Third Ward — a rather hip area — and the lakefront. Aaron tells us they occasionally hold summer festivals on part of this lot — so a few times a year, at least, this place has people in it. One thing’s for sure, though: parking lots so close to the waterfront are even sadder then regular parking lots.

Here’s a wider view where you can see the parking/freeway complex divide the Third Ward from the lake:

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