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: 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.”