Victory! Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights finds state is violating civil rights rules

4 Sep

If federal transportation money is spent on expanding highways while dollars for inner-city public transportation are slashed, how can transit-dependent people – who are much more likely to be people of color – get to their jobs? What impact does expanding highways to the suburbs have on a highly segregated city?

These are the kinds of questions groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation, the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin and the Midwest Environmental Advocates asked the Wisconsin Department of Transportation back in April of 2011. We raised these questions in the name of racial and environmental justice because we knew the state was headed in the wrong direction on transportation priorities. And we learned a big part of the reason these issues weren’t being dealt with fairly was that WisDOT had simply not followed federal rules that require it to have a plan to implement civil rights requirements – and to update that plan every year. Instead, we learned in 2011 that WisDOT hadn’t had a Title VI plan since 2004 – and officials at the Federal Highway Administration office in Madison knew it and let them disregard the rules.

That’s simply the wrong thing to do. When states use hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars, they have to make sure that the benefits of those funds are shared fairly. And it isn’t fair to add to urban sprawl and ignore public transit – especially when the state knows that communities of color depend on transit much more than other groups. It means making sure the state follows Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and ensuring that transportation programs do not effectively discriminate against people of color. In the highly segregated City of Milwaukee, expanding suburban highways while cutting public transit will keep transit-dependent people from jobs, medical care, affordable housing and other needs.

Last month, after a yearlong review, the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights in Washington DC agreed with us: they found that the state was “deficient” for not complying with the civil rights rules.  Civil rights officials gave the state 90 days to improve. We’ll be keeping an eye on them as well.

And our other work for racial and environmental justice in southeastern Wisconsin isn’t over: earlier this month we filed a lawsuit in federal court over a highway expansion plan to rebuild and widen the Zoo Interchange, a plan that completely ignored the transit needs of urban communities.

Transit advocates believe that we must have a more balanced plan. When it comes to our tax dollars, fairness means that the most disfranchised in Wisconsin aren’t denied investment in their transportation options.

The story was featured in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin Public Radio statewide headlines today, as well as a wire story in Sheboygan, Wausau and Pierce County. It also got a mention in the Political Environment blog. Attorney Karyn Rotker was also interviewed on 1290 AM WMCS on Tuesday.

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