A Hero on the Bench: WI Judge Takes on Real Impacts of Highway Expansion

Posted by Laura Barrett on July 9, 2013

When we go looking for the heroes and heroines who defend our freedoms, we tend to look backward: George Washington, Mother Jones, Harriet Tubman, etc.  But sometimes giants are walking among us - people who act strategically and courageously to ensure that "the people" are protected.  

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation had already begun a $1.7 billion dollar highway rebuild of the "Zoo Interchange", the largest  transportation project in Wisconsin's history when some concerned citizens decided that they had had enough.  MICAH, Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin worked with the ACLU to file a lawsuit in U.S. District court  to stop the project.  

Judge Lynn Adelman agreed with the plaintiffs that WisDOT and the Federal Highway Department (FHWA) had not done their homework.  The so-called Environmental Impact Assessment had not taken the needs of transit-dependent people into account and had also disregarded regional environmental issues. 

In his decision, which is an interim ruling,  Adelman wrote that the economic impact statement "is likely deficient because it does not address the cumulative impact of continuing to expand highway capacity in the region while transit capacity declines."

This part of Judge Adelman's opinion alone is enough to stop most transit advocates in their tracks:  that's what we have been saying all along!  Highways come first, transit last (if at all) in most of the decisions that state DOTs make.  In addition, the supposed hammer for regionalism and smart growth, Metropolitan Planning Organizations, tend to be toothless tigers. 

Judge Adelman also took on riotous exburb growth. As Kaid Benfield said in his recent terrific blog "...the agencies also must examine the potential regional effects of highway expansion on suburban sprawl.  The court rejected the agencies’ argument that they need only study the impacts in the specific area where the highway expansion was taking place, finding that it would defeat the “action-forcing” intent of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) if a piecemeal approach to highway projects and analysis allowed cumulative regional impacts to escape scrutiny."

A variety of heroes and heroines made this story possible: (1) MICAH, the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin and the ACLU for organizing grassroots folks and for bringing the suit in the first place, (2) Judge Adelman for understanding and carefully outlining the larger societal and governmental issues at play, and (3) President Richard Nixon who signed NEPA into law in the first place.  

As the plaintiffs continue mediation, let's hope they stand up for low-income communities and transit-dependent people (seniors, kids, people with disabilities).  MICAH's motto: "To do what is just" comes from one of the most eloquent of biblical prophets.  A little more people-oriented prophecy may be just what we need in this country. 

Photo: Marquette Interchange, WI. By Flickr User Zack K, CC BY-NC.

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Laura Barrett is the executive director at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

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