Friday, May 2, 2008

Deadline for comments on North-South I-94 project is approaching

The deadline for comments on the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on the proposed North-South I-94 reconstruction and expansion project is May 5. As you know all, there were numerous flaws and efficiencies in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The FEIS addresses some of the flaws, ignores others and has some new ones all its own. We hope you will take the time to submit comments in opposition to freeway expansion in Milwaukee.

Comments can be sent via e-mail to dotsefreeways94nsc@dot.state.wi.us, phone (262) 548-8721 or fax (262) 548-5662.

(Public comments on the draft document, for the most part, were ignored by the State Department of Transportation. Some 64% of people weighing in on the issue opposed the eight-lane expansion configuration still endorsed by WisDOT; 98% opposed the 27th St. access (and lack of it) that WisDOT is proposing for Milwaukee.)

We have requested that that WisDOT extend the comment deadline because until April 23, 19 days into the 30-day comment period, the agency’s web site for the project failed even to mention the existence of the comment period. Information about it was posted only after CASH brought the omission to WisDOT’s attention.

We subsequently requested the extension. We just do not think it unreasonable that the department give full notice of a 30-day comment period on its major communications vehicle for the project. Information about the comment period for the DEIS was posted there, and a reasonable person certainly would expect to be able to find similar information comment period for the final document.

WisDOT, though, is arguing that the official notice of the comment period was published in the Federal Register, and that information also was included in newspaper ads and on 13,000 postcards the agency sent out.

Dealing with these things in order:

  • The Federal Register is not a very good public outreach tool, to say the least. The Federal Register is a dense, difficult publication and is not widely read by the general public.
  • The contention that adequate notice can be given through newspaper ads when newspaper readership is in rapid decline is, like WisDOT’s transportation priorities, stuck somewhere in the rapidly receding past.
  • 13,000 postcards is not anywhere near enough to provide notice all of those who might wish to comment on the FEIS.

The FEIS is, with appendixes and notes, well over 400 pages long. Some highlights and lowlights are provided below. You can read the entire report at http://www.dot.wisconsin.gov/projects/d2/i94/eis.htm

Expanding the freeway will not improve travel times in Kenosha and Racine counties beyond the improvements that would be realized through reconstruction with design improvements but without full expansion. According to the EIS:

The Safety and Design Improvements with Added Capacity Alternative would decrease travel times on SB I-94 during the evening rush hour by over 10 minutes between Howard Avenue and College Avenue in 2035, compared to the Safety and Design Improvements Alternative. Travel times would not vary by as much south of College Avenue. In Racine and Kenosha Counties, there would be little difference in travel times between the two alternatives.

WisDOT estimates that expansion costs account for $200 million of the $1.9 billion total project price tag.

The language in the Final EIS is the first time that WisDOT has acknowledged that expansion won’t help traffic in the majority of the project area. Unfortunately, our friends in the media haven’t reported this.

The report’s analysis of greenhouse gas impacts is inadequate. The analysis is not much of an improvement over the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which did not mention greenhouse gases at all. The final EIS talks about greenhouse gases, but doesn’t say much useful and offers no mitigation plans. From the final EIS:

WisDOT is an active partner on the Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming, providing input as part of the Transportation Work Group. The work group is considering policy recommendations, including adopting California emission standards, using low carbon fuels, and reducing VMT through land use planning and implementation of public transit.

***

WisDOT will continue to participate in statewide initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases, monitor the development of additional findings, and minimize impacts of projects to the greatest practical extent allowed in its stated mission: to develop and operate a safe and efficient transportation system (WisDOT, 2004).

The plan does not include adequate plans for mitigating wetland loss in the affected watersheds: The US Environmental Protection Agency, in a letter to WisDOT, said that “If impacts to the seven acres of ADID wetlands (wetlands that generally are not suitable to be filled) are unavoidable and must be filled, at a minimum ratio of 2:1 of acres restored to acres lost, 14 additional acres of compensatory mitigation must be found. It is absolutely critical that these 14 acres contribute to restoring wetlands in or next to primary environmental corridors of the Des Plaines and / or Root Rivers, and to continue the water quality functions of wetlands for this regions.”

EPA also said that another 73.5 acres of new wetlands will be needed to compensate for the loss of other wetlands due to the freeway project. “The wetlands need to be provided for in one or more of the project’s watersheds,” the agency said.

WisDOT indicated it is most likely to locate its wetland compensatory acreage in Walworth County, well outside the Des Plaines, Root River, Oak Creek and Kinnickinnic watersheds, those inside the project area. WisDOT said it has been unable to thus far find suitable compensatory land in the relevant watersheds.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement acknowledges that more wetlands will be destroyed or degraded than previously stated. From the study:

In addition to the 53 to 56 acres of anticipated direct wetland impacts of the Build Alternatives, remaining adjacent wetlands could be exposed to further degradation. Degradation can occur from stormwater runoff and increased vulnerability to aggressive, non-native species repopulating degraded wetlands. This degradation contributes to poor floristic quality of disturbed wetlands and reduced functional value.

It is likely there will be the potential for additional wetland loss and degradation associated with planned developments and development that is potentially included from new interchange access in Milwaukee County or improved mobility in the study area.

The FEIS also includes a table – not included in the draft document – detailing another 42-plus acres of wetlands that likely will be lost to other WisDOT projects in the area.

WisDOT acknowledges in the FEIS that more floodplains will be destroyed than previously reported. Again, from the study:

About 17 acres of floodplain fringe area would be filled by either of the Build Alternatives. The potential for cumulative floodplain filling, associated with planned developments that are potentially induced from new interchange access in Milwaukee County or improved mobility in the study area, is likely. For example, the Environmental Assessment prepared for the interchange reconstruction projects in Kenosha and Racine Counties estimated a loss of more than 30 acres of floodplains. In addition to the loss of flood control functions, the cumulative impact of floodplain filling from the I-94 north-south corridor and secondary development results in reduced natural habitat available to wildlife in the area.

The study says that WisDOT is not allowed to identify funding sources for the project. Wisconsin law prevents the current legislature from committing future legislatures to a particular course of action; therefore, the specific source of funds for completing the project cannot be identified at this time,” the EIS said.

That statement is just silly. WisDOT has every right – and a fiduciary obligation – to figure out how this project can be paid for and to make recommendations for doing that. WisDOT is not the legislature and it can never adopt a budget. It sure as heck should be telling us how much more in gas taxes it will need and what debt service burden state residents will be shouldering to pay for a freeway expansion that won’t improve travel times in most of the project area.

The study’s proposal for dealing with invasive plant species is inadequate in light of WisDOT’s own history dealing with invasives. “Linear corridors, such as highways, can foster the movement of invasive plant species. WisDOT will work with DNR during the design phase to develop and assess the feasibility of measures to minimize the spread of invasive species,” the EIS said.

WisDOT, however, stopped making serious efforts to control invasive species several years ago because, it said, there wasn’t enough money. WisDOT shifted that particular burden to private property owners and local units of government. You can more at http://www.milwaukeerising.net/IssuesFreeway54.htm#Invasive

The study fails to adequately address flooding and runoff issues. WisDOT is proposing a massive increase in impervious surface, especially in Milwaukee County. In addition, the agency is proposing to bring the expanded freeway closer to homes and businesses and to increase the slope of the freeway in some areas so that it drains better.

From the report:

County

No-Build\Existing

Safety and Design Improvementsa

Safety and Design Improvements with Added Capacitya

Lake

16 acres

16 acres

18 acres

Kenosha

292 acres

292 acres

341 acres

Racine

305 acres

305 acres

352 acres

Milwaukee

237 acres

308 acres

355 acres

TOTAL

850 acres

921 acres

1,066 acres

The expansion alternative in short, means impervious surface increase of two acres, or 13%, in Lake County; 49 acres, or 17%, in Kenosha County; 47 acres, or 15%, in Racine County; and 118 acres, or 50%, in Milwaukee County.

WisDOT offers no specific mitigation plans to reduce flooding problems for homeowners and business operators. Instead, it says it is meeting with other agencies on these issues.

The study acknowledges that areas adversely affected by increased noise levels attributable to the expanded freeway would not qualify for soundwalls, according to the report. Conversely, the visual blight of sound walls would be constructed in about a dozen areas where they do not now exist.

The FEIS ignores the reality of gas prices. WisDOT contends that people who say the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission’s 2035 regional transportation and traffic forecasts are wrong are wrong themselves.

SEWRPC projected 2035 gas prices at the 2005 equivalent of $2.30 per gallon, which many people found somewhat comical. WisDOT says, though, that SEWRPC projected a 3% gasoline inflation rate, which would mean gas prices of $5.60 per gallon in 2035 (and still the equivalent of $2.30 in 2005.

If SEWRPC’s 3% inflation projection were accurate, the gallon of gasoline that cost $2.30 in 2005 would cost $2.51 today. WisDOT itself, though, said in the FEIS that the actual average gas price in the Milwaukee area on Jan. 30 was $2.98, according to milwaukeegasprices.com. We checked on April 28 and the average price for unleaded was $3.75, according to the same web site.

The study says that WisDOT contributes $100 million annually to transit programs statewide. The figure is meant to refute the contention that the state does not do enough to fund mass transit and should put more resources there.

WisDOT’s own budget figures show that while the state will indeed spend $292 million in the 2007-09 biennium on transit assistance, it will spend more almost twice that amount -- $577 million – on debt service. Most of that debt, it is safe to assume, was incurred for highway projects.

The state will spend another $395 million on Southeastern Wisconsin freeway projects. Yup, that’s right. The state will spend $100 million more on Milwaukee-area freeways than it will on transit throughout the state.

It will spend a total of $2.4 billion on major highway projects and rehabilitation statewide during 2007-09.

WisDOT does not address the numerous transit cuts that have occurred in Milwaukee County over the past several years due to the lack of funding.

The FEIS drops the offensive argument than minorities will benefit from the project because North-South I-94 connects Milwaukee and Chicago, two minority-majority communities. While the agency highlighted text it added to the Final EIS, it does not show in any way what text it dropped. You have to know that it was in the draft to know it was dropped from the Final EIS.

The study dismisses EPA concerns over air quality modeling. The EPA said that the air modeling WisDOT used was “not consistent with current academic literature and other published guidance.” WisDOT rejected the suggestion of other methodologies.

There are other flaws uncorrected from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. We have previously stated most of these, but some have been updated.

  • WisDOT’s $1.9 billion cost estimate for the project includes a 3% annual inflation adjustment. Based on recent history, this is unrealistically low. The American Road & Transportation Builders Association said that the cost of highway and street construction materials rose 12.8 percent from March 2007 to March 2008. “Over the last five years, between 2003 and 2008, the price of highway and street construction materials rose 52 percent,” ARBTA said.
  • The traffic and pollution impact estimates included in the report are fiction. Those impacts are based on expansion of transit options to the extent recommended in SEWRPC’s 2035 regional transportation plan. That plan proposes a near doubling of transit service in southeastern Wisconsin by the year 2035 and calls for a significant increase in state funding to support expanded transit. The problem, of course, is that there are neither plans nor funds to implement the plan’s transit recommendations. WisDOT needs to incorporate its transit plans into the DEIS or prepare new impact estimates for the I-94 proposal based on the most likely transit scenarios, not the most optimistic ones.
  • WisDOT’s plan does not consider the induced demand generated by an expanded freeway.
  • The plan puts a disproportionate burden on the city of Milwaukee and its residents. WisDOT acknowledges that construction of an interchange in Oak Creek may have negative impacts on efforts to redevelop the 27th St. business corridor on the south side of Milwaukee and may negatively affect older business corridors in general.
  • The FEIS does not include available documentation regarding work commuting patterns of residents living in predominantly low-income and minority neighborhoods in the project area, which would shed substantial light on the issues of who benefits from the expansion proposal and who does not.
  • The FEIS discusses the state’s contributions to transit systems, but does not directly address how this massive project would affect future transit funding. WisDOT’s decision to fund freeway construction instead of transit disproportionately affects low-income and minority populations that are more reliant on transit. SEWRPC, in the 2035 regional transportation plan, said significant additional funding would be needed to implement and maintain its transit recommendations including “an annual 4 to 5 percent increase” in state funding. WisDOT notes that it is not its responsibility to coordinate transit systems in the region. It does not discuss whether it has any responsibility to provide a balanced transportation system.
  • The FEIS, although it indicates that negative health impacts may be attributable to vehicle emissions, does not include adequate protections for students and staff at schools near the Interstate. Numerous studies show that traffic-generated particulates and pollution have adverse affects on health, particularly among children. A recent study shows that students attending schools within 500 meters of a freeway can suffer permanent lung damage. In Milwaukee, schools within 500 meters of the North-South freeway within the project area include Cooper, Garland, Lowell and Whittier elementary schools; Ronald Wilson Reagan College Preparatory High School, IDEAL Charter School and Professional Learning Institute at the Sholes Educational Complex; St. Roman Parish; and Salam School.
  • The FEIS fails to analyze the potential environmental and economic impacts of alternative fuels most likely to be adopted in the future.
  • The project would have potentially unacceptable negative impacts on many threatened and endangered plant and animal species, and the FEIS does not contain adequate mitigation plans.
  • The FEIS does not analyze or discuss potential light pollution from the project. This is a significant omission because homes and businesses – particularly those in Milwaukee -- would be nearer to the freeway.
  • The FEIS does not adequately analyze impacts of the project on traffic speeds and traffic volumes on adjacent streets. The report, for example, lists eight streets that may see a 5,000+ increase in traffic volume during project construction. There are other streets and neighborhoods, however, that will be significantly affected by detoured traffic. While they may not see 5,000-vehicle increases, they also may be built to handle a much smaller volume of traffic than the streets listed. Smaller traffic increases on those streets would still have extremely negative consequences. The overall traffic impact analysis is lacking in substance and does not adequately explain the completed project’s potential impacts on local-street volumes and safety, or on neighborhood environs.
  • The FEIS is silent on the impact of oil prices on construction costs, and is generally silent on the impact of oil prices on how much people drive, although it does say SEWRPC will analyze the impact on driving of $4 per gallon gasoline.

No comments: