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Businessman files lawsuit to stop Park East project

By Sean Ryan
Daily Reporter Staff

Cutline: George Watts, a Milwaukee businessman, has filed a lawsuit to stop the $28 million demolition of the Park East Freeway spur in Milwaukee. The project is scheduled for bidding in January 2002.

Photo Courtesy: Wisconsin Department of Transportation

A downtown Milwaukee businessman Tuesday filed charges to block the Park East Freeway spur demolition, citing inaccuracies in the project’s environmental impact assessment. “The information provided to the city officials did not reflect the true economic impact that razing this freeway spur will have,” said Ralph Lisowski, aide to George Watts, the former Milwaukee mayoral candidate who filed the charges. “They’re trying to distort the facts so that it looks palatable to the community.” Watts’ George and Martha Foundation for Freedom and Common Sense Ltd. filed the charges in Wisconsin’s Eastern District U.S. Court against the city and county of Milwaukee, the Wisconsin and federal Departments of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. If successful, the case would block the state- and federally-funded $28-million demolition of the Park East Freeway spur and widening of McKinley Avenue. Lisowski said the foundation is claiming that Milwaukee-based HNTB Corporation’s environmental assessment of the project didn’t accurately assess the economic impact to businesses in the area, which includes Watts’ George Watts & Son Inc. gift shop. Tearing down the spur would also cause traffic jams downtown, he said, especially once the Marquette Interchange reconstruction begins. “Some of the businesses are opposed to the razing of it and some of them support it, but I don’t believe the impact statement they used addressed that issue in its entirety,” Lisowski said. “We think it’s going to cause traffic problems. The Hoan Bridge collapse caused chaos on the south side when it closed. We feel it will be the same thing if the spur is closed.”

Project forging ahead

William Fung, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration Wisconsin Division, said project developers will stick with their schedule to bid the job in January 2002. He said even if Watts wins the case, the DOTs could perform another environmental assessment and renew the project based on their findings.

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“We are advancing the project unless we are told otherwise,” Fung said. “If George’s complaint has merit, then we could go back and address those issues in a satisfactory manner. Why not? But it’s kind of premature to tell.” Fung said his administration approved HNTB’s assessment and would fight Watts’ “incorrect” allegations in court if need be. “We will, or at least our lawyers will, be involved in this,” he said. Linda Thelke, Wisconsin DOT spokeswoman, said the department has been expecting Watts to open this case based on the protests he raised at public hearings in Milwaukee about the project. The project’s impact study is comprehensive and accurate, she said, and found the demolition would not negatively impact the community. “We have seen his concerns over time, and we went through a very public process,” Thelke said. “We’ve looked at the access issues, the historical issues and we’ve looked at the impacts to the neighborhood. We came up with a decision that the county, the city, the state and the highway administration agreed on. We just routinely go through impacts, and we’ve basically found none.” Lisowski said there is more at stake than the welfare of businesses around the spur. The $28 million project is funded through taxes, he said, and would not benefit the citizens who pay them. “We feel that the taxpayers in the community are not getting the best investment return on their dollar,” Lisowski said. “It makes it less convenient to get downtown.” Madison Writer Sean Ryan can be reached at 608-260-8571 or by email.

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