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Agencies push WisDOT for Zoo Interchange details

Sean Ryan
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Regulators and environmentalists are taking the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to task over the possible environmental impact of the Zoo Interchange project.

WisDOT received letters this month from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (PDF) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (PDF) charging that WisDOT’s Zoo Interchange planning studies are incomplete.

The state DNR said WisDOT must get a better idea of how reconstruction options, such as expanding the interchange from six to eight lanes, will affect storm water runoff.

“Our DNR role is to point out to DOT what environmental issues are present in the area,” said Mike Thompson, supervisor of the DNR southeast region environmental analysis team. “Storm-water management is important in this area.”

WisDOT’s draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the Zoo Interchange includes plans for a storm-water retention pond near the 84th Street off-ramps. It also considers grass ditches and other green space to trap rainwater that drains from the highway. The DNR said WisDOT also should look into pavements that can absorb water.

The storm-water retention pond raises concern because it uses older technology than earthen filtration systems that slowly absorb and clean water, said Rosemary Wehnes, association representative for the Sierra Club National Conservation Program. She supports the DNR’s call for WisDOT to gather more information.

James Liptack, WisDOT Zoo Interchange project manager, said the department will review and respond to comments from the DNR and EPA.

“At this time we have received the comments, but we are not going to comment on anything,” he said. “We will address all concerns in the next few months and they’ll be in the final EIS.”

WisDOT’s final environmental impact statement will detail construction methods to be used. But Cheryl Nenn, riverkeeper and interim executive director for the environmental group Milwaukee Riverkeeper, said the state should refrain from choosing a reconstruction plan until it gets more information about environmental effects such as increases in runoff.

In the U.S. EPA’s comments to WisDOT, the agency noted that the environmental impact statement lacked information, and asked the department to explain why it is considering certain reconstruction methods, such as the controversial “Texas-style” on- and off-ramps at 84th Street. The ramp design routes drivers on eastbound Interstate 94 past 84th Street over a bridge that directs them in a U-turn that then deposits them on a ramp onto 84th Street.

The missing information seems to be an oversight, said Kathy Kowal, life scientist in the National Environmental Policy Act implementation section of EPA’s Chicago district office. She noted that most of WisDOT’s reconstruction options include explanations of their benefits.

“There are about six sub-alternatives that could benefit from some additional information about the benefits,” she said.

Liptack said he is not familiar enough with the situation to know why some construction alternatives did not include information about their benefits.

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