Suit over Milwaukee road project cites impact on minorities

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MILWAUKEE (AP) The NAACP's Milwaukee branch and other groups are suing to stop a $1 billion highway project in the city, saying in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that the lack of investment on public transit harms blacks and Latinos and exacerbates segregation.

The federal lawsuit argues minorities in Milwaukee are more likely than whites to rely on public transportation and that expanding capacity on a portion of Interstate 94 will promote urban sprawl.

The lawsuit contends the state of Wisconsin and federal government failed to consider impacts on minorities and the environment when transportation officials approved widening a 3.5-mile stretch of I-94 near Marquette University to the neighborhoods west of downtown. The project is on hold because it lacks funding, but the groups sued because Monday is the deadline to object to the plan.

The lawsuit calls the Milwaukee area where the project is located "the most racially segregated region in the United States for African Americans," according to figures from the federal government.

The city's black and Latino residents "have ended up being isolated and cut off from a very large portion of the employment opportunities in the region" because they lack the means to get to them, said Dennis Grzezinski, an attorney representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit names the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and federal transportation agencies that approved the project last fall. Doug Hecox, a spokesman with the Federal Highway Administration, and Patricia Mayers, a spokeswoman for the state's transportation department, both said they could not comment on pending litigation.

This is not the first time Wisconsin has been sued over alleged transportation disparities. In 2012, Grzezinski was an attorney in a successful lawsuit that made similar arguments for opposing expansion of a highway interchange in Milwaukee. In that case, the state settled by agreeing to pay more than $13 million for new bus routes.

Other groups in the latest lawsuit include the Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope and the Sierra Club John Muir Chapter.

The lawsuit says minorities are "far more likely than whites to live in 'zero vehicle' households." Because of that, the lawsuit argues it's difficult to travel to jobs in the Milwaukee suburbs or even some parts of the city.

"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," the lawsuit says.

The groups also raise environmental concerns in the lawsuit, arguing that more cars on the highway will worsen air quality and have adverse health impacts on nearby residents.

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