Gretchen Schuldt

How State Ignored Civil Rights

The Department of Transportation flagrantly ignored federal law and the rights of urban minorities.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Sep 13th, 2012 01:22 pm
Road Construction

Freeway Construction

The recent report by the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights on Wisconsin’s failure to comply with Title VI of federal laws is both painful and painfully funny to read. How could a state agency fail in so many ways? The feds publish plenty of guidance and Title VI is not exactly an obscure statute.

Title VI prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, color, or national origin under any program receiving federal funding. In the transportation area, it is supposed to ensure that protected groups share the benefits of transportation projects and do not shoulder a disproportionate burdens of those projects. Title VI is a really big deal.

The federal report details the many ways Wisconsin ignored the law. Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation assigned duties related to Title VI to an administrative area that no longer exists, the report notes.   As a result, “it is not apparent as to how WisDOT will be implementing Title VI/Nondiscrimination requirements.”

The feds found that key WisDOT employees did not have even a basic understanding of Title VI. They “consistently” said they understood Title VI to be about WisDOT employment diversity, contracting diversity and disadvantaged and small business opportunities. Those things, though, “do not constitute Title VI/Nondiscrimination requirements,” the report said.

And when the law did come up at WisDOT, it came up very quietly. The agency liked to keep such issues to itself, according to the federal report. Written records that might become public? Nawww.

Title VI matters were discussed at “impromptu meetings held bi-weekly or monthly at which issues of any description (including Title VI/Nondiscrimination issues) are introduced and addressed,” the report said. “There are no Meeting Agendas and Meeting Minutes maintained to document the outcomes of these meetings.”

WisDOT didn’t have a Title VI training program for its employees and some reported getting absolutely no training in the law’s requirements, according to the report.

WisDOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt, in an abysmal attempt at spin control, told the Journal Sentinel that the OCR’s investigation was “routine” and the department was now in compliance with federal requirements.

Maybe. But the OCR’s finding that WisDOT was deficient in fulfilling its Title VI obligations was hardly routine.

“I think it’s extremely rare for a federal agency to find a recipient of federal funding – especially a state agency – deficient in its civil rights compliance,” said Karyn Rotker, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. Rotker, along with environmental attorney Dennis Grzezinski and Patricia McManus, executive director of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin Inc., brought WisDOT’s Title VI problems to the feds’ attention.

WisDOT, now busted, says it will finally do what it should have been doing all along. The ACLU will be watching.

“We do want to make sure that any corrections/remedies are meaningful – not just paperwork or pro forma,” Rotker said.

WisDOT’s abysmal civil rights performance occurred during the time (under both Democratic and Republican governors) it was pushing for bigger freeways in Milwaukee amidst oft-raised concerns that poorer, transit-dependent city residents were bearing too much of the projects’ burdens. Among the issues raised were the impact of expressway expansion in city neighborhoods, and the inadequate funding for public transit for the many people who lack an auto. Those concerns were rejected.

So what confidence, given the OCR report, can the public have that WisDOT officials give them proper consideration? Or even that WisDOT officials give a damn?

Gretchen Schuldt is a senior contributing writer for

Categories: Politics

12 thoughts on “How State Ignored Civil Rights”

  1. Jerad says:

    Thank you UM for consistently being the best source of development, transit and social news in the entire city. Keep it up.

  2. Todd says:

    So where were all the complaints when all that money was spent on upgrading the Marquette Interchange or all the work on I-94/I-894 near the airport area? There were none since they benefited Milwaukee directly and now that we need to improve the busiest interchange in the whole state, the cries of discrimination and racism are of course being heard from Milwaukee. These groups have no credibility in their claims when they decide to selective protest and show false outrage over actions by the WISDOT. This interchange is critical to commerce in this state and directly impacts businesses on the NW-side of Milwaukee, which employ alot of the same minorities that are faking all this outrage!

  3. Begonia says:

    Is this an article, or an opinion piece? I can’t quite figure out sometimes. It would be nice if columnists were labeled “Opinion” so I can know.

    The tone of this article certainly seems to fall in the “opinion” category. It would have been nice if you had looked for some outside third party to back up either Karyn Rotker’s claims or WisDOT’s supposed “spin”.

  4. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Please spread the word about this. The total ignorance and hypocrisy of the Walker administration on this issue is beyond the pale. A man who kills high speed rail (not only in Wisconsin, but also in Ohio, Florida, and by extension even California) by turning it into a political bogey man has the gall to waste billions on useless free way widening? It’s breathtaking.

  5. Nathanael says:

    This is an article. The investigation record speaks for itself. My God. WisDOT wasn’t even *trying*.

  6. Justin says:

    So now my fuel is taxed to provide transportation subsidies to others?! I’m not paying for a bus that wastes money or for a train to nowhere. The fed was just forcing WI to build tracks and WI would have to pay $billions to maintain it. And strings attached would have gutted state rights and given them to the feds. Not just train laws, but NON-transportation laws. Why would WI want their politicians to agree with Chicago politics?
    And DOT got in trouble for not reacting to the law, they did not get in trouble for breaking the law.

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @Justin Just to be clear auto based transportation is heavily subsidized. Just look at MAP-21 (the recently passed – awful- transportation law), it included an infusion of general funds, $18.8 Billion this time alone. (just one example…many more)

  8. Begonia says:

    Please post a copy of the FHWA’s final civil rights report. It’s not posted on jsonline, either. I’d like to read it myself.

    I guess my beef with all of this is that it seems like Karen Rotker et al (and many of the people who are transit advocates in Milwaukee) are barking up the wrong tree. They are trying to change the way that WisDOT funds transit, when the reality is: WisDOT employees don’t set the budget. They don’t determine the amount of funding available for transit; the governor and the joint finance committee determine the amount of funding available for transit.

    Also, even if the joint finance committee decided to allocate more funding for freeways, a lot of the money that the ACLU says should be spent on transit, is by Federal law required to be spent on capital expenditures. So let’s say that those billions of dollars that were allocated for freeway expansion were available to MCTS (and the other transit systems in Wisconsin). That means that the transit systems could buy new buses. But they still couldn’t use that money for operating the system. And anyone who has followed this debate over the past 10 years knows that the issue isn’t that MCTS is running old and antiquated buses: the issue is that MCTS has cut it’s transit service by 30 percent because it can’t afford to operate the service–in other words, pay the salaries of the drivers and mechanics for all the routes that it used to run.

    If Milwaukee wants more money for transit, it has got to get its State and Federal representatives to change the way the funding is distributed. It has to get authorization from the state to establish a regional transit authority. But where was the Milwaukee ACLU’s office during the debates on the RTA? Where was the ACLU when it was time to advocate for transit at the State Capitol? I didn’t see them pictured or quoted in the newspaper then.

    A new transportation bill (MAP-21) just passed. The new bill changes the way that some of the moneys for transit are distributed. I’m on a lot of biking advocacy e-mail lists, and after the most recent transportation bill (MAP-21) was passed, the biking community banded together, organized, and has been working with governors and state transportation departments across the country to make sure that–within this new system–biking and walking infrastructure projects get funded. Where is the transit community? Why aren’t they doing something similar?

  9. Tom says:

    Justin, Wisconsin taxes railroads and uses the money to build highways.

    Look into the “Wisconsin Railroad Ad Velorem Tax” (a special transportation tax) which in 2009-2010 brought Wisconsin $24 million. This $24/million a year is also more than the TOTAL of the projected Madison train subsidy PLUS today’s actual State subsidy for Milwaukee-Chicago trains.

    It looks to me like Wisconsin taxes railroads to subsidize highways, NOT the other way around.

    You can see the transportation (highway) revenue breakdown in Table 1 (page 2) in:

  10. Dave Reid says:

    @Begonia I added the report to the article. Just a couple of things:

    “And anyone who has followed this debate over the past 10 years knows that the issue isn’t that MCTS is running old and antiquated buses: the issue is that MCTS has cut it’s transit service by 30 percent because it can’t afford to operate the service–in other words, pay the salaries of the drivers and mechanics for all the routes that it used to run.” Well this isn’t exactly right. Yes the service cuts are huge, but there was in fact a huge issue with old equipment ( I think much of this has been fixed today (that you ISTEA + stim funds, but it was a huge problem)…

    And I’m glad the bike community is fighting to save funding under MAP-21, but MAP-21 is a pretty terrible bill for biking, walking, and transit.

  11. Begonia says:

    Thanks for posting the report. I would agree that it looks like WisDOT staff didn’t understand the meaning of Title VI and they haven’t given the Federal statute the attention it merits. But there was also a “disclaimer” paragraph at the beginning of the report that said, “WisDOT has a developed and well thought out Public Involvement approach….WisDOT is to be commended for these achievements.” So they definitely weren’t following the letter of the law, but at least they were following some of the law in spirit, at least in their public involvement approach.

    And yes, Dave, you are right that until recently, MCTS was using old buses. However, MCTS now has one of the newest fleets in the country. So where’s all that money for new capital going to get you?

    I am not sure how bad MAP-21 is for transit. I thought it pretty much maintained the current funding levels–obviously more is needed though. Again, maybe I would know more about the bill for transit if groups like the ACLU worked in a positive and collaborative fashion with other transit advocates, networking and helping one another, rather than banging their heads against the same wall again and again.

    And while I’m ranting, you know what else bugs me about the Milwaukee ACLU? I feel like inherent in their arguments are the implication that “black people don’t drive, are dependent on transit and will forever be transit riders”. According to the ACLU’s logic, only white people from the suburbs will be benefitting from reduced congestion at the zoo interchange.

    Why can’t we invest in BOTH transit AND freeways?

  12. Jeff Martinka says:

    Good to see your research and writing again, Gretchen

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