Groups file lawsuit against PennDOT, Fed. Hwy Admin, Erie Bayfront Parkway Project

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Several groups have filed a lawsuit against PennDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Erie Bayfront Parkway Project, claiming PennDOT utilized a short-cut environmental review process, and bypassed mandatory public hearings — ignoring public calls to review alternatives before selecting a final design.

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.

These groups say the decision violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the Federal Aid Highway Act, and that 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.  

“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.”   

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.  

However, some Erie residents have protested and expressed their opposition during city council hearings.

“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 Millcreek 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.” 

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 lawsuit says the pre-selected project design remains unchanged. 

“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 the lawsuit filed today, it 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. 

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