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December 15, 2020

Groups File Lawsuit Challenging Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration’s Vehicles-First Erie Bayfront Parkway Project

PennDOT illegally utilized a short-cut environmental review process that bypassed mandatory public hearings, ignoring public pleas calling for review of alternatives prior to selecting final design

Contacts

Nydia Gutierrez, Earthjustice

Jared Stonesifer, PennFuture 

Erie, PA

Today, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP – Erie Unit) and Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture), represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit challenging the Federal Highway Administration’s approval of the Categorical Exclusion for the Erie Bayfront Parkway Project. The decision violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the Federal Aid Highway Act. PennDOT failed to examine the project’s potentially significant impacts, including harms to water and air quality, which would fall primarily on neighbors living near the road.

The lawsuit filed today with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania seeks a full environmental analysis, as well as adequate and documented public review of alternative parkway project designs before expanding the Bayfront Parkway — a major road that runs through Erie’s waterfront.

The estimated $70 to $100 million Erie Bayfront Parkway Project was first announced in 2015 with plans that call for better pedestrian access and improved travel along the highway. With aid from federal and state funding, PennDOT and developers are expected to begin construction in 2022.

The Erie Bayfront Parkway Project would involve drastic changes to three major intersections in downtown Erie. The law requires PennDOT to hold public hearings on the project to showcase alternative design plans before moving forward. Initially, the project was scheduled for an environmental assessment — a review process that identifies alternatives and evaluates each alternative’s possible harm to residents and the environment. However, this March, PennDOT sought an abbreviated review called a categorical exclusion, which the Federal Highway Administration illegally approved. Categorical exclusions are normally granted for run-of-the mill projects like bridge repair or roadway repaving that stir no public controversy.

With PennDOT advancing with a pre-selected design plan, the project further segments historically marginalized and environmental justice communities that reside within the project area in Erie’s downtown. With 75% of the population in the adjacent neighborhood characterized as low-income, EPA considers the neighborhood an “environmental justice community.” Additionally, census data indicates 54% of the population in the area is non-White, and 26% of the population within the three Census tracts of the project area are Black.

“Members of our NAACP unit and generations of Erie bayfront residents have seen similar projects come and go promising improvements that have not been realized for our community. With the Parkway project's clear priorities of attracting conventions and out-of-town visitors, our voice and opinion about the character and needs of the neighborhood are being ignored once again,” said Gary Horton, President of NAACP – Erie Unit. “People live here, and we have lived here since the 1800s when West Erie Bayfront was called New Jerusalem and the current NAACP members’ ancestors settled in the area. We deserve to have the opportunity to comment on the parkway design and to be taken seriously by the entities looking to expand the parkway and increase traffic in our neighborhoods.”

PennDOT’s pre-selected project design prioritizes cross-city commuters over the health, safety and bayfront access of downtown residents. The project expansion is designed to double waterfront traffic with 2-lane roundabouts at Sassafras & Holland Streets with an underpass and “highway-style exits” at State Street.

“PennDOT has failed to conduct a thorough evaluation of this project’s impacts on Erie’s valuable environmental resources, including the long term impacts on water quality in Mill Creek and Presque Isle Bay. Stormwater runoff is already a major threat to water quality in the Lake Erie watershed. This project will lead to increased traffic and more impervious surface areas, creating more runoff into the Bay, negatively impacting water quality and increasing the potential for flooding,” said Angela Kilbert, a Staff Attorney for PennFuture. “It is vital that we protect Erie’s waterways from the threat of irresponsible development.”

Inconsistent with Pennsylvania's Climate Action Plan, the project’s pre-selected design is set to widen the parkway to increase vehicular traffic when the state’s goals are to reduce greenhouse emissions by reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT). The state’s climate action plan also promotes expanding opportunities for, and incentivizing walking and bicycling. According to the state’s website, Pennsylvania is already in the process of updating its Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan to help set more ambitious programs and policies aimed at replacing single occupancy trips with alternative transportation modes.

Erie residents have protested and expressed their opposition during city council hearings detailing their concern with the project’s design that prioritizes vehicles over pedestrians. PennDOT recently stated across their website and social media platforms that pedestrian improvements will be a part of the first phases of construction on the Bayfront Parkway Project, however, the pre-selected project design remains unchanged. Additionally, PennDOT touts that no area residents will be displaced, while ignoring the worsening segmentation caused by widening the division from downtown Erie residents and the bayfront.

“Erie deserves federal funding to improve the bayfront, but that funding should support the pedestrian-focused approach Erie’s comprehensive plan calls for, through a process that evaluates impacts to people and the environment and provides a meaningful opportunity for public input before investment decisions are made,” said Jill Witkowski Heaps, Staff Attorney at Earthjustice. “PennDOT is illegally using a short-cut environmental review process meant for non-controversial, routine road projects. The Bayfront Parkway Project is a major overhaul of the Erie Bayfront, so under the law, PennDOT should have analyzed multiple alternatives and held a public hearing seeking public input before making a decision on which design is best for the people of Erie.”

According to PennDOT’s environmental review documents, the purpose of the project is to improve the pedestrian, bicycle, transit, and passenger vehicle connection of the Erie Central Business District and adjacent neighborhoods to the waterfront property north of the Bayfront Parkway, to reduce crashes as much as practical on the Bayfront Parkway, to improve future congestion to an acceptable level of service or delay, and to improve traffic operations and efficiency.

For the reasons listed above and as expressed by hundreds of Erie residents, the lawsuit filed today on behalf of the NAACP - Erie Unit and PennFuture by Earthjustice aims to ensure alternative design options are explicitly presented to the residents of Erie and that proper public input is recorded and considered with great regard in the Erie Bayfront Parkway Project prior to moving ahead with a pre-selected project design.

About NAACP – Erie Unit: Founded in 1918, the Erie Unit of the NAACP has been committed to fighting for civil rights and equality in the Erie community.

About PennFuture: PennFuture is leading the transition to a clean energy economy in Pennsylvania and beyond. We are protecting our air, water and land, and empowering citizens to build sustainable communities for future generations.

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.