Judge cites lack of transit in ruling on freeway project

By Robbie Webber

A federal judge in Wisconsin has allowed a lawsuit against a major urban freeway project to proceed, agreeing with community groups that low-income residents could suffer “irreparable harm” if the project moves forward. The groups contend that the project advantages wealthier auto commuters at the expense of poorer transit riders , and the judge found that the plaintiffs have a likelihood of success on the merits.

The Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin and Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope targeted the project’s environmental impact statement, claiming that state and federal transportation officials failed to fully evaluate the project’s environmental and related social and economic impacts.

No one denies that the interchange at the junction of Interstate 94 and U.S. Highway 45—named the Zoo Interchange because of its proximity to the Milwaukee Zoo—needs to be rebuilt. Safety and design problems, as well as deteriorating pavement, need to be addressed. However, the objections by the community groups stem from a lack of transit components in the project, even though a 2006 regional plan commission plan recommended that public transit in the area be doubled by 2035 in addition to upgrading highway capacity.

The plaintiffs argue that transit-dependent city residents need access to jobs in the suburbs served by the project, that the project will accelerate development in suburban locations, and that the project will have detrimental effects on air quality. The project’s EIS provides evidence of substantial transit service between the core urban area on the eastern end of the project and suburban Waukesha County, the western terminus of the project. However with the exception of one route, this service is structured to provide peak travel-direction service for suburban residents accessing jobs in the city and does not provide reverse access.

In addition to inadequately serving the community, the plaintiffs charged, the transit issue would have environmental consequences. “We spend a lot of time working on health issues related to air quality, and one of the things the judge found was that transportation officials didn’t consider the air quality effects related to the loss of transit,” said Dr. Patricia McManus, president of BHCW.

Judge Lynn Adelman noted that highway capacity has continued to expand in the area while transit capacity has declined. He found that the EIS is deficient because it fails to address three outcomes and ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their claims in these areas:

  • Failure to consider social and economic effects associated with expanding highway capacity while transit capacity declines.
  • Failure to consider effects on air quality
  • Failure to consider growth-inducing effects

The judge has suggested mediation in the case, and both parties have agreed. Mediation will begin in the judge’s courtroom in June.

The full ruling from Judge Adelman can be found here.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.

Note: An earlier version of this article described the judge’s ruling as a preliminary injunction. He stated that the merits of the arguments would have led him to do so, but he had to hold an evidentiary hearing.