Freeway widening receives criticism

Randy Romanski, WisDOT's executive director, said it has not approved or disapproved the widening of lanes. At this stage in the process, WisDOT will start on preliminary engineering and release federally required Environmental Impact Statements, which include examining what environmental problems might arise.

The lane widening plan came under fire from the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sierra Club, a national environmental group.

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of Wisconsin's ACLU, said he wants SEWRPC to "look at the project and make sure minority and low-income groups do not disproportionately suffer adverse effects of the reconstruction."

Ahmuty described SEWRPC's report as "deficient" in terms of who will be affected and how.

The report, according to Ken Yunker, deputy director of SEWRPC, said that 127 miles out of 270 total are being considered for widening. Along that 127 miles, 35 houses, five commercial buildings and one government building will have to be destroyed.

Yunker said the exact addresses of the affected properties have not been released because nothing goes directly "from this plan to construction." He said if he released addresses, people at those locations would think their property would definitely be acquired. However, since the reconstruction plan is still in its early stages, Yunker said that would be unfair to the property owners because things are apt to change.

Ahmuty was angered by the secrecy of the addresses.

"Very early in the process the community has to be brought in," he said. "If the community doesn't know which blocks are affected, how can you say that community is involved?"

Ahmuty also feels the minority community has not been properly involved in the planning process.

"Until we complained," he said, "they did not have information in Spanish."

Ahmuty said SEWRPC attempted to market the plan's benefits to minority groups by stressing its good points, such as jobs the construction will provide.

"We realize (the freeway) needs to be fixed," he said. "But just a few jobs won't compare to giving kids asthma."

Another point of conflict involves environmental concerns. Yunker said federal environmental agencies have "acknowledged we've gone far beyond the level of detail required of a system plan" into environmental impact research.

However, Rosemary Wehnes, the Sierra Club's conservation organizer, said SEWRPC did not account for sport utility vehicles in studying pollution levels and have not investigated effects on specific areas along the freeway, referring to studies indicating a link between living near a freeway and increased health risks.

Yunker said SEWRPC's study included much more detail about environmental concerns than was needed. He said it is now WisDOT's job to perform environmental impact studies.

SEWRPC's study found ozone-related air pollution from traffic declining and continuing to decline even as traffic goes up, because of better fuel efficiency. However this study is faulty, Wehnes said, because SUVs are not regulated for fuel efficiency as strictly as cars.

A final point of conflict involves induced demand. Wehnes said increasing capacity will lead to more cars on the freeway.

"If you build it, they will come," she said.

Yunker said he does not agree with arguments about induced demand primarily because of differing definitions about what it means. He said adding capacity to I-94 and I-43 will "induce people to be on the freeway instead of on surface arterioles and taking shortcuts through neighborhoods."

Wehnes pointed to studies suggesting freeway expansion brings in a significant number of new vehicles. Yunker mentioned studies saying the opposite.

Actual reconstruction of the freeways will not begin until after work is completed on the Marquette Interchange in 2008. Yunker said the expansion he supports will not relieve congestion, but will keep it at the same level for the next 20 years.