WisDOT Faces Civil Rights Suit Over $1.7 Billion “Zoo Interchange”

In the politically polarized Milwaukee region, there are two widely divergent visions of what transportation should do.

Wisconsin is going to spend $1.7 billion rebuilding and expanding its "Zoo Interchange," outside Milwaukee. Civil rights and environmental groups believe the massive expenditure, while the city's transit system faces cuts, is discriminatory. Photo: ##http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/zoo-interchange-lawsuit-wellintended-misguided-uo6fvf0-166194396.html## Milwaukee Journal Sentinel##

There’s the Waukesha vision, which might be summarized as all highways, no transit. This suburban Republican stronghold — one of the most conservative counties in the country — has for years been systematically severing the already limited transit connections to its core city, Milwaukee.

Then you have the Milwaukee vision, which prioritizes transit, at least to the extent that it can. This is a city that tore down a highway before the feds were handing out TIGER grants to fund such projects. It is currently planning a streetcar project. In 2008, Milwaukee County voters elected to raise their taxes in order to expand transit options — before the state legislature refused to authorize the collection of funds.

That should give you a sense of the transportation feuds in Wisconsin’s largest metro area. The region’s weak transit system is a key factor in Milwaukee’s status as the nation’s most segregated metro area. But in this battle, the Waukesha vision is generally winning — and it’s not that close.

There is no better example of where Wisconsin’s transportation priorities lie under Scott “No Train” Walker than the Milwaukee Zoo Interchange megaproject. At $1.7 billion, it is surely one of the most expensive interchanges ever built (keep in mind this is a state that “couldn’t afford” to operate passenger rail at $8 million a year). And guess who will benefit most from Wisconsin’s massive road expenditure — the transit riders in Milwaukee, or the super commuters from Waukesha?

This week, a civil rights group and an environmental group filed suit in federal court against WisDOT, alleging that the interchange project — which contains no provisions for transit — is in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Title VI requires government agencies that receive federal funding to not administer it in a way that has a “discriminatory impact” on minority groups.

Thats exactly what Wisconsin’s asphalt-only transportation policies do, says Dennis Grzezinski, an attorney for the plaintiffs, the Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin. The groups are seeking to halt construction until a new plan can be developed that does a better job addressing environmental and equity concerns.

“We’re pointing to this incredible imbalance between billion and billions spending on the highway system and the deterioration of the transit system,” said Grzezinski. “That’s the sole means of transportation for a larger part of the Hispanic and African American communities. If we keep spending huge sums of money on highways, these groups are just going to be left behind in terms of health and education and work.”

The Zoo Interchange is the largest and busiest in the state of Wisconsin. It was built in 1963. This map shows the plans coded according to construction schedule. Image: ##http://projects.511wi.gov/web/zoo-interchange-project/map## WisDOT##

Milwaukee’s transit system is facing service cuts and fare increases. Meanwhile, supposedly “broke” Wisconsin is undergoing a massive highway expansion campaign. The interchange is part of a plan for $6.2 billion in highway upgrades for the seven-county Milwaukee region, endorsed and championed by Walker, the self-styled fiscally conservative governor.

Milwaukee’s environmental and civil rights groups have been complaining for years about an insidious highway bias among transportation agencies, but there hasn’t been much response from planning agencies, Grzezinski said.

Grzezinski said his clients have no problem with the state rebuilding the Zoo Interchange, which was built in 1963 and is the most highly trafficked interchange in the state. It’s the road widenings that have been tacked on, Grzezinski said, that seem so inequitable.  The group thinks all the money that would be spent widening the roads should be transferred to transit. Grezezinski estimates that would amount to a few hundred million dollars, enough to restore bus service and avoid fare hikes, potentially.

WisDOT’s plan, Grzezinski said, is “just about the most expensive approach they could have taken.” The state has played down the new capacity aspects of the project. But the plan, he said, incorporates 19-foot shoulders, apparently so additional lanes can be added later, he said.

A spokewoman for WisDOT said only one of the road sections was adding a lane. She did say, however, that I-94 would have 18-foot interior shoulders, saying that was a fairly standard practice for the department.

“WisDOT builds the interchanges for a 75 year life and it is fiscally responsible to accommodate future changes to operations,” said Lindsay Necci of WisDOT. “The larger shoulders are also built to accommodate traffic during construction.”

WisDOT does not comment on ongoing litigation, she said.

Everyone acknowledges this is a large and complicated interchange. Set just outside the city of Milwaukee, it serves as the confluence of two interstate highways and a widely traveled state highway, seeing 350,000 daily vehicles.

But James Rowen, a former Milwaukee official and creator of the blog The Political Environment, says the state of Wisconsin has a very powerful road lobby, and that both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty of currying its favor. (Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan’s family made a fortune building roads through the state.)

The big expenditures have been even more glaring lately, given that Walker has taken some controverial, hard-line policy positions on the premise that the state is “broke.” But the Milwaukee region already rates among the lowest in the country in congestion, according to the Texas Transportation Institute [PDF].

Meanwhile, Rowen says, the regional planning agency’s own studies show the Zoo Interchange will only save commuters about five minutes for the $1.7 billion public investment.

“It’s just such a stupendous jaw dropping waste of resources to spend on moving a small group of people in their cars a little faster,” Rowen said. “People have this sense of entitlement that they should live 20 miles from Milwaukee and should be able to commute downtown at freeway speeds without any delay.”

“Here you have this state which claims to be broke, we certainly don’t have any money for transit but we can take this federal money and borrow to the hilt for this freeway plan.”

13 thoughts on WisDOT Faces Civil Rights Suit Over $1.7 Billion “Zoo Interchange”

  1. I fantasize about orchestrating a social protest against highways.  It involves me a few dozen people all getting onto the highways at a coordinated time, then driving several abreast (enough to cover all highway lanes & shoulder) at 35 mph, then slower.  We do that to all roads leading into the city creating grid lock that people will talk about.  That day, only those who took the train, or cycled to work, or who live in the city get to work. 

    This interchange needs that type of protest.  

  2. You people are insane.  Do you have any idea how long these projects go through planning phases.  The Zoo Interchange project technically started under the Thompson administration in the ’90s.  Scott Walked and Paul Ryan did not decide last year to start a project that takes 20 years to design and plan for.  It can take two to three years to design and build a small residential road, and you are talking about the biggest interchange in the State of Wisconsin.  Three years ago the Zoo Interchange was deemed “unsafe” for driving and had emergency repairs to three of its bridges, and you think this project is a big political scam?  I only wish that you knew half of the work and thought that goes behind something this amazing.  This $1.7 billion “scam”, as you refer to it as, has and will provide thousands of jobs for Wisconsinites for the past 20 years and for many years to come. The majority of the people getting these jobs are state employees and union workers, the same people who Scott Walker “discriminates” against.  This project is not for the “wealthy” commutes who live in Waukesha county either.  It is for the trucks, buses, and commercial vehicles that deliver millions of dollars worth of goods all around the state each day.  Trucks that come to and from Milwaukee. 

    P.S. – KillMoto, I would love to see you pull that stunt when a close friend or family member was seriously injured and needed transport to a hospital to save their life.  Wouldn’t be smiling when your stunt caused people their life…

  3. @d80f8d3b7086ba8eb8789fed9fa81a5f:disqus So you’re saying that the Zoo Interchange will largely benefit truckers? Or put another way, this is a $1.7 billion subsidy to the trucking industry. I don’t deny that we need trucks to move freight, but their use should be the last few miles from a railroad yard to their final destination. Moving freight long distances by truck along Interstate highways makes no sense. All long distance freight should go most of the way by rail. Unlike the trucking industry, the rail freight industry doesn’t require government subsidies. In fact, freight rail seems to be the only transportation mode which doesn’t require subsidies for either operating costs or infrastructure.

    Once you remove the argument that this interchange is needed for trucking, it makes even less sense. Far better to spend that $1.7 billion on local public transit. That will benefit the local commuters much more, particularly the ones who are shut out of jobs now because they can’t afford a car. Despite 75 years of trying, we haven’t built our way out of auto congestion and we never will. It’s better to pump less money into roads and more into other modes for a bunch of reasons. Roads induce sprawl which is bad all around. If roads receive fewer subsidies, eventually the market will correct. You’ll have less sprawl and more infill development.

  4. I also forget to mention that with many power plants nationwide switching from coal to natural gas, there is a growing amount of surplus capacity on freight railroads. This is an ideal time to start a modal shift away from long-distance trucking. Trucks tear up the roads  far more than cars do. Get them off the roads, and we’ll see maintenance costs drop 90%.

  5. @d80f8d3b7086ba8eb8789fed9fa81a5f:disqus Recently I was driving (gasp!) on the highway in stop & wait traffic.  In my rear view mirror I saw two things: (1) Cars practically bumping into each other to scramble and make room to the right, and (2) a red-and-blue blinky-lit ambulance moving about 40mph down that jam packed highway.  I, like the others, jammed my vehicle to the right (since highway lanes are pretty darn wide).  The ambulance passed, quickly and unmolested. 

    Meanwhile, almost 100 people did die today on American roads.  I know this, because bout 100 people die EVERY day on American roads.  The automobile (driver) is the single biggest killer of people age 1 through 40 (this information is in a freely searchable database hosted by NHTSA).  Much of those killed were in single vehicle wrecks on the highways  The highest causal factor in these deaths is speed – which mind you, rarely happens in stop & wait traffic.  Common Sense says: Remove congestion from highways, people wile drive faster, and people will continue to die from (cough) fast driving. 

    Real common sense says: Diversify! Why place all your investment into one mode of transport? 

    Real common sense says: $8 million is a shit-ton less than $1.7 billion – it’s literally a rounding-off error to the latter figure… so, why can’t Wisconsin do both? 

    Real common sense says: Even if you, Mr. Motocentric embodied – would never take a bus, maybe several of the drivers in front of you would – why not invest in a transportation alternative, even if only for the cynical reason that you want less traffic on the highway for… your own selfish reason.

    Real common sense says: if trucking shit around is so important – then get the single occupancy vehicles out of the truck’s way, by golly!  Give those drivers a bus to ride!

    @d80f8d3b7086ba8eb8789fed9fa81a5f:disqus , I implore you – get some Common Sense. 

  6. commonsense is right.  Many years go into an interchange for planning, not to mention public hearings, traffic studies, etc.  The Transportation Fund was regularly raided by the Doyle administration, and probably will be by Walker….  Not to mention the fact that the Transportation Fund raises money through the gas tax (which Republicans stopped indexing to inflation about a decade ago) and car registrations.  This money should go towards state highways and bridges, not Milwaukee city public transit systems. 

  7. @a3269025aec61d2688d9cb7eeb0622c4:disqus People who cite the gas tax as a reason for transportation funds to solely pay for highways should get what they want:  Highways funded by the gas tax, gas tax paying for nothing else, and most importantly NO FUNDS EXCEPT GAS TAX pay for highways.  That would indeed be fair. 
    Oh, in that scenario, about half the dollars that toward highway acquisition, construction, maintenance, and policing would disappear (and go into people’s pockets, or towards other transportation initiatives). 

    As someone who rarely uses the highways, I’m all for that.  Stop raiding my property, income and sales tax to support highways!  Make the drivers pay!!

  8. @c44dc01f8107c1b33104b538f33b734d:disqus if you ever do that, I wish you is criminally charged and whatever career you have is trashed.
    People using highways are citizens like you, me and everybody else.

  9. Yes let’s criminalize slow travel on highways. That will eliminate traffic jams, as people wont want the ticket for slowing down… Brilliant!

  10. Lots of planning, just left out a few important groups impacted by the plan. Ooops! And that folks is why we needed a Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in the first place. Go Bus!

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