Working to Stop Highway Expansion and Wetland Destruction

Working to Stop Highway Expansion and Wetland Destruction

By Raymond Cox, Highway J Citizens Group

The Highway J Citizens Group (HJCG) represents residents of Waukesha and Washington Counties who are concerned about the potential destruction of the region along a proposed highway route. We are committed to preserving the beauty, tranquility, and environment of the area and support an improved two-lane road through our communities as opposed to a four-lane expansion.

The HJCG was created in the spring of 1999 by an informal group of concerned citizens in response to the acquisition of jurisdiction over what was then County Highway J, by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT). WisDOT renamed the road State Highway 164 and began preparations for expanding the two lane county highway to a four-lane, divided, state highway with a 30-foot wide median strip that reserves the ability to further expand to six lanes in the future.

We have an eight-person steering committee (made up of citizen representatives from each of the affected communities), which plans and directs the activities of the group.

Every active member of our citizens group is a dedicated, unpaid volunteer who spends countless hours of time furthering the community-oriented goals of the group through grassroots activities including:

  1. Regularly distributing leaflets, newsletters, and e-mail updates,
  2. Organizing and holding petition drives, demonstrations, and citizen rallies,
  3. Obtaining town and county resolutions opposing these road expansions,
  4. Making appeals to federal and state government agencies,
  5. Meeting with our state legislators and local government officials, and
  6. Conducting a comprehensive media campaign, which has included writing letters-to-the-editor for local newspapers, producing and airing radio advertisements, and conducting interviews with newspaper and TV news media.

These grassroots efforts have all been specifically designed to maximize citizen interest and participation in protecting the water quality, wetlands, shorelines, rivers, lakes, and aquatic habitats in the Highway J/164 area of the Great Lakes watershed. The 22-mile long Highway J/164 corridor in Waukesha and Washington Counties crosses wetland areas, several rivers, and is in close proximity to several lakes. All of these waterways are within the Great Lakes Basin. If WisDOT is allowed to expand Highway J/164 to four-lanes, some local governments plan to convert land use and zoning along this roadway from the current agricultural/residential classification to a commercial/industrial classification. We fear that changing the Highway J/164 land use and zoning in this fashion would encourage developers to fill-in wetlands and alter river paths, causing widespread destruction to the area’s aquatic habitat. Concerns have also been raised with regards to groundwater contamination problems in the Ackerville area and whether the construction may exacerbate those problems.

In July of 2002, our citizens group filed a federal lawsuit against WisDOT, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and US Department of Transportation (USDOT) to stop the Ackerville Bridge Reconstruction Project and the four-lane expansion of Highway J/164. In June of 2003, the U.S. District Court in Milwaukee ruled in favor of these three roadbuilding agencies. We promptly appealed the district court’s decision to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Our appeal was heard by a three-judge panel in September of 2003 and in November of 2003 the Court of Appeals again ruled in favor of the defendants (the three roadbuilding agencies).

Despite the setbacks incurred by the two court rulings, we will continue our fight to stop the expansion of the Ackerville Bridge and Highway J/164. We plan to file an appeal by February 2004.

If our appeal is successful, the WisDOT may be required to 1) investigate and clean-up the Ackerville-area groundwater contamination problems, 2) adopt other more fiscallyresponsible and environmentally-friendly alternatives as opposed to expanding Highway J/164 to four lanes, and 3) prepare a new comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the entire 22-mile long Highway J/164 corridor.

Since 1999, the HJCG has raised and spent approximately $80,000 to further the grassroots goals of our group. Our group’s necessary expenses have included legal fees, professional consultant fees, court costs, fundraising expenses, office supplies, advertising, and group promotions. Nearly 90% of these have come from concerned citizens who live in the affected communities on or near the Highway J corridor. We have also received some grants and donations from other organizations, including GLAHNF, which has helped supplement the costs of attorney fees as well as fundraising and advertising expenses.

Since our group’s formation over four years ago, the HJCG has been hugely successful in our ability to energize and unite citizens concerned about the effects to the environment and their quality of life should the highway expansion project be completed. We have been able to bring together thousands of concerned citizens, local, county, and state elected officials, and many environmental groups and other organizations, to vigorously oppose the WisDOT’s road expansion plans. Another major victory in this project has been our ability to generate substantial continuing interest and coverage of this ongoing battle in the local and state newspaper, radio, and television media.

Our biggest challenge through this battle is what we see as the roadbuilding agencies’ (WisDOT, FHWA, and USDOT) complete non responsiveness to citizen input, and their apparent lack of concern for the health and safety of the people who will be negatively impacted by these massive road and bridge projects. The WisDOT is moving forward with both the Ackerville Bridge and the Highway J/164 four-lane expansion projects, which we believe are causing significant damage to the area’s environment and jeopardizing the health and safety of the residents who live here. These government agencies appear to be used to “getting their own way”, and, as we quickly learned, very rarely bend to pure political and public pressure. It is due to this unresponsiveness that the HJCG had no choice but to file this federal lawsuit.

To any group of concerned citizens contemplating a similar grassroots effort to stop a road expansion project we share these lessons learned form our own experience: we recommend organizing your members, keeping them regularly informed and involved, and raising funds for upcoming necessary expenses as early as possible. We also suggest retaining the very best legal, scientific, and environmental experts in preparation for likely legal action. You should be prepared for a long, hard grassroots battle both prior to and during the filing of legal action.

Highway J Citizens Group
Raymond Cox
4510 Loch View Rd. Hubertus, WI 53033
(262) 628-0596

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.