MILWAUKEE (CN) – The NAACP and Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit to block a $1 billion project to rebuild and expand I-94 in Milwaukee, claiming it will exacerbate racial segregation and increase air pollution.
The NAACP’s Milwaukee branch, Sierra Club John Muir Chapter and Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Home, or MICAH, sued state and federal transportation officials in Milwaukee federal court Wednesday, hoping to stop construction of the project.
According to the complaint, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration approved the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's $1 billion project that would reconstruct and add travel lanes to a portion of I-94 from 16th to 70th streets in Milwaukee.
But the groups say the project does not address the growing need of public transit in the city and will likely exacerbate regional racial segregation. Air quality and water resources would also be negatively impacted if the project proceeds, they say.
“In metropolitan Milwaukee, freeway construction both destroyed neighborhoods – many populated by communities of color - and facilitated urban sprawl, which was overlaid with, and related to, racial segregation in housing. Racially disparate forms of residential relocations caused by freeway construction compounded the problem, while sprawl quite literally paved the way for white flight from the city,” the complaint states. “The project's capacity expansion elements alone, and especially those elements when combined with other recent and planned highway capacity expansion projects in the region, will contribute to and exacerbate this suburban sprawl. That sprawl will also perpetuate or exacerbate racial segregation.”
According to the lawsuit, the interstate project does not include any public transportation element despite a documented need for public transit expansion.
The metropolitan statistical area that includes Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties was ranked in 1990, 2000 and 2010 as the most racially segregated region in the U.S. for blacks, according to the lawsuit, and there is also significant segregation of Latinos.
The NAACP, Sierra Club and MICAH say there are racial disparities in transit dependence in the region.
"Only about 75 percent of Milwaukee County/Black African American households indicated they have an automobile available for travel, and only an estimated 60 percent of Black/African American adults have a driver's license. Only about 85 percent of Milwaukee County Hispanic households indicate they have an automobile available for travel, and only an estimated 50 percent of Hispanic adults have a driver's license," according to a Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission reported cited in the lawsuit.
By comparison, 90 percent of white households say they have a vehicle, and 80 percent of whites have driver's licenses, the complaint states.
Pastor Marilyn Miller, president of MICAH, said in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin that her group is concerned about “the extreme and unacceptable rate of joblessness in the central city, for persons of color in general and African-American men in particular.”
“We all know that people of color depend on transit to get to work at all. We need more transit – to more places where the jobs are – not just highways that don’t help these members of our community get to work,” Miller said.
The NAACP, Sierra Club and MICAH claim the interstate project will also have a negative impact on the environment and residents’ health.
“Traffic-related air emissions resulting from the expansion of this freeway would likely contribute to an increase in asthma attacks to adults and children in the adjacent neighborhoods,” the lawsuit states. “Increased air pollution would also be a significant contributor to increased heart disease incidence, premature death and adverse birth outcomes that have life-long impacts.”
Bill Davis, director of the Sierra Club John Muir Chapter, said, “Expanding highways while support for transit declines also hurts our air quality, which is a health and environmental justice issue that concerns the Sierra Club.”
The lawsuit names as defendants Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Dave Ross, the Federal Highway Administration, its Acting Deputy Administrator Walter Waidelich Jr., Wisconsin Division Administrator Michael Davies, the U.S. Department of Transportation and its leader, Elaine Chao.
The NAACP, Sierra Club and MICAH seek a declaration that the transportation officials violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by not preparing an adequate environmental impact statement for the interstate project. They also seek an order vacating records and notices related to the project.
The groups are represented by Dennis Grzezinski in Milwaukee, and by Karyn Rotker with the ACLU of Wisconsin.
Patty Mayers, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said the department does comment on pending litigation.