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Minnesota group claims momentum from Highway J ruling

By Sean Ryan
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A ruling against state and federal planners in a lawsuit over the Highway J reconstruction is energizing anti-highway groups challenging the Stillwater Bridge project hundreds of miles away.

But the decision is far from final in the federal lawsuit filed by the Highway J Citizens Group and Waukesha County Environmental Action League.

Tom Clarke, a Minneapolis resident and member of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter, said he drove all the way to Hubertus on Monday to celebrate the lawsuit victory with the citizens group and the action league.

A federal judge in September sided with arguments that Highway J planning was insufficient for the proposed widening from two to four lanes in Waukesha and Washington counties.

The arguments and litigants in the Highway J case mirror those in a Sierra Club North Star Chapter lawsuit against the $581.7 million project to build a new four-lane Stillwater Bridge over the Lower St. Croix River. Clarke said he wants the Highway J case to encourage a similar outcome in the Stillwater Bridge case.

“It’s pretty early yet,” he said. “I’m probably being a little premature to call it a landmark case, but I’m so encouraged by it.”

Both the Highway J and Sierra Club lawsuits argue planners did not fully review the environmental effects of the project and did not consider alternatives.

U.S. attorneys are taking the lead in both cases, and the Federal Highway Administration does not comment on pending litigation, said Doug Hecox, FHWA spokesman.

But even as Clarke anticipates the Highway J lawsuit helping pave the way for a Sierra Club victory, the decision by federal Judge Lynn Adelman could be wiped away by a challenge from state and federal agencies. Attorneys representing the U.S. and Wisconsin departments of transportation, Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month asked Adelman to reverse his decision.
A Thursday court conference that was meant to let attorneys in the Highway J case work through the details of Adelman’s decision turned into a less-than-five-minute scheduling conference to discuss the challenge.

The court challenge argues state and federal planners considered the environmental effects of their projects and considered — and then rejected — such expansion alternatives as lowering speed limits on the road.
Highway J’s attorneys on Friday will respond to the challenge of Adelman’s decision, said Jeff Gonyo, a member of the Highway J Citizens Group steering committee. Gonyo on Monday organized the gathering in Hubertus so attorneys in the lawsuit could share information about their case.

“It’s nothing more than a rehash of old arguments that have already failed in front of Judge Adelman,” Gonyo said of the challenge to the decision.

A decision is pending by the U.S. District Court of Minnesota in the request to throw out the Sierra Club’s lawsuit over the Stillwater Bridge. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, WisDOT, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. National Parks Service are the defendants in the case and filed the request.

“I hope the judges follow each other,” Clarke said.

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