MILWUAKEE (CN) – The U.S. Department of Transportation must correct several deficiencies in its proposed expansion of a two-lane highway before beginning construction, a federal judge ruled.
1000 Friends of Wisconsin, Inc. succeeded in stalling the widening of a 19-mile stretch of State Highway 23 from two to four lanes between Sheboygan and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
A previous court order had approved the extension, but U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman had doubts about the DOT’s traffic-forecasting formulas and its failure to release all of the data used in its projections.
Friends of Wisconsin – a nonprofit dedicated to sound land-use planning – argued that traffic volume on the stretch of road in question peaked in 2005 and has been declining in recent years. The group’s statistics run contrary to the DOT’s data, which projects yearly increases through 2035.
Adelman concluded that while the government provided ample information regarding the formulas used to calculate traffic volume, it failed to disclose any of the raw data used to obtain the numbers in its environmental impact statement.
“For this reason, the defendants have failed to comply with NEPA,” she wrote in a 26-page opinion. “This failure is not harmless. Rather, it has prevented the plaintiffs from being able to understand how the defendants arrived at traffic projections that seem at odds with current trends. Perhaps the defendants’ projections are accurate, but unless members of the public are able to understand how the projections were produced, such that they can either accept the projections or intelligently challenge them, NEPA cannot achieve its goals of informed decision-making and informed public participation.”
The judge also cited the government’s failure to revisit its traffic projections after a March 2014 population study predicted a substantial decline in population growth through the year 2040.
“It appears to me that the updated Department of Administration population data will significantly change the traffic projections and consideration of reasonable alternatives that appear in the impact statement, and that therefore supplementation of those parts of the impact statement may be required,” she wrote. “Although the defendants contend that I should defer to their conclusions as to the significance of the new population data, here there are no agency conclusions to defer to.”
Despite the doubts regarding traffic projections, Adelman expressed satisfaction with the government’s consideration of alternatives to a four-lane highway.
“The defendants evaluated three different passing-lane alternatives: one that simply added passing lanes at certain points, one that incorporated left-turn lanes in addition to passing lanes, and one that involved expanding the highway to four lanes in a high-demand area and using passing lanes in other areas,” she wrote. “They considered adding other features, including reduced access points, wider shoulders, medians and ‘J-turns’, into all of the passing-lane alternatives.
“The plaintiffs have not identified any specific feature or collection of features that the defendants should have considered incorporating into the passing-lane alternatives but did not,” she added.
Adelman remanded the case to the state agencies responsible for the environmental impact statement, and required them to “prepare a document that explains exactly how they arrived at the projections of future traffic volumes that appear in the impact statement.”
A telephone conference is set for June 1 to determine whether an injunction is required to prevent any further work on the expansion.
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