For nearly two decades, the ACLU of Wisconsin and other allies have worked for environmental justice and transit equity.

We’ve fought the expansion of I-94 because building more and bigger highways can make the already-bad segregation in Milwaukee worse. In the Milwaukee region, people of color are far more likely to be dependent on public transit than white people and often will bear more of the burdens of highway expansion (including pollution) than white people. Over the years, we have also worked on other environmental justice issues, including joining the Cleaner Valley Coalition to successfully advocate for a coal plant in the downtown Milwaukee area to convert to less-polluting natural gas, and we opposed allowing predominantly white Waukesha to obtain Lake Michigan water to facilitate sprawl.

Our advocacy has taken many forms, from working with community groups to preparing and submitting official comments to filing civil rights complaints with administrative agencies to taking the government to court.

For example, in August of 2012, the ACLU of Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates sued federal and state transportation officials on behalf of Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, opposing the massive $1.7 billion renovation of Milwaukee’s I-94 Zoo Interchange. We argued that the state and federal government had violated environmental law by failing to consider a plan that included public transportation as a reasonable alternative, and by approving a plan that would exacerbate the inequities and burdens – including air quality burdens – on people of color in the region. After a federal judge ruled that we were likely to succeed in the case (MICAH v. Gottlieb), the case was settled when the government agreed to pay $13 million to expand bus routes to suburban job opportunities during the four years of the project construction. (Of course, we believe more, and more sustainable, transit funding remains critical).

In 2017, we again sued transportation officials for again failing to include transit and failing to consider adverse effects on people of color from their proposal to expand I-94 in dense urban neighborhoods in west-central Milwaukee; we represented the NAACP-Milwaukee Branch and MICAH. The state of Wisconsin then withdrew the project in the fall of 2017. However, in 2021 the state began the process to resuscitate that damaging project. We and other advocates successfully pushed to force the state to do a new environmental impact statement, and we submitted comments, along with many other environmental justice advocates, on the new proposal in January, 2023.  We will continue to advocate for a transportation system that fairly shares benefits and burdens – to ensure that underserved communities get the transit they need and are not subjected to harmful effects like pollution and degradation of park lands. The increased environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project would also disproportionately affect communities of color.

In May 2023, we also asked the US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration’s Office for Civil Rights to consider our comments on the I-94 expansion as a specific civil rights violation. The project is now under investigation for a Title VI complaint due to the discriminatory and environmentally unjust impacts of the project for surrounding communities of color.