- In December 2020, Erie branch of NAACP, PennFuture environmental group sued over changes to Bayfront Parkway
- Project includes pedestrian bridges, lowering of parkway beneath State Street; PennDOT, feds back the plan
- Plaintiffs disagree with design, wanted to block construction
A lawsuit challenging the $100 million project to improve the Bayfront Parkway is proceeding in federal court in Erie, but it no longer includes a request for a preliminary injunction to halt construction.
The case’s two plaintiffs — the Erie branch of the NAACP and the environmental advocacy group Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, known as PennFuture — withdrew their injunction request on Friday, less than two weeks after they filed it.
The withdrawal came after U.S. District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter assured the plaintiffs that she will rule on the underlying lawsuit before the anticipated construction date, revised to Jan. 9, according to an order Baxter issued on Friday. Baxter in the order granted the plaintiffs’ motion to withdraw the injunction request, and she canceled a hearing she had scheduled on the request for Tuesday.
Baxter issued the two-page order after she held a telephone conference on Friday with the plaintiffs and the defendants, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
The plaintiffs requested the preliminary injunction on Aug. 29, based on what they said in court records was the latest construction schedule from the PennDOT. That schedule called for preliminary construction to start in November.
The plaintiffs said they wanted the injunction to avoid construction starting before Baxter rules on the lawsuit. The outcome of the case could affect when and how the project advances.
“Any contract awarded by PennDOT will set in motion a governmental process that will be difficult to stop — what courts call the ‘bureaucratic steamroller,'” according to a memorandum the plaintiffs filed to support the request for the preliminary injunction. “PennDOT’s decision-making will then be prejudiced in favor of the Project, even if Plaintiffs prevail and the Court orders PennDOT to conduct a proper environmental analysis.”
Halting a plan?:Injunction sought to block construction of Bayfront Parkway project as lawsuit lingers
Summary judgment ruling next for judge
The Erie branch of the NAACP and PennFuture sued in U.S. District Court in Erie in December 2020. They are claiming that the amount of public input on the parkway project has been insufficient and that PennDOT’s environmental impact study for the planned changes to the parkway was inadequate and violated federal law.
Initial legal action:Federal lawsuit filed over Bayfront Parkway improvement plans in Erie
The plaintiffs are not objecting to a redesign of the Bayfront Parkway, they said in a court filing. But they said they disagree with the project as planned, contending it fails to achieve “what Erieites have been asking for — a pedestrian-focused corridor linking downtown to the waterfront.”
Before the project, as currently planned, can proceed, the plaintiffs want Baxter to order PennDOT “to conduct a proper environmental analysis” and to hold a “public hearing soliciting public feedback,” the plaintiffs said in another filing, the memo that accompanied the motion for a preliminary injunction.
PennDOT and the Federal Highway Administration are arguing they followed federal law in completing a reduced environmental review for the project. They are also arguing that PennDOT has held public meetings over several years to offer details on the project and receive public comments. PennDOT and the FHA opposed the injunction request.
Public project:PennDOT to begin monthly programs on planned Bayfront Parkway improvements Tuesday
The plaintiffs in September 2021 asked Baxter to rule in their favor in the underlying lawsuit by granting what is known as summary judgment, in which a judge decides a case based on pretrial filings. The defendants in November 2021 asked Baxter to grant summary in their favor.
Response:PennDOT rejects claims of wrongdoing in federal lawsuit over Erie’s Bayfront Parkway
Another response:Federal agency denies wrongdoing in response to lawsuit over Erie’s Bayfront Parkway
In her order on Friday, Baxter gave the plaintiffs and the defendants until Oct. 16 to file new motions related to summary judgment. She said any final responses to those motions must be filed by Nov. 23.
“The Court will rule on the new cross-motions for summary judgment no later than December 31, 2022, thus obviating the need for preliminary injunctive relief, as the anticipated Construction Start Date for the Bayfront Highway Project is January 9, 2023,” according to Baxter’s order. “Defendants have agreed they will not change the anticipated Construction Start Date to a date earlier than January 9, 2023, to ensure that this case proceeds according to the foregoing schedule.”
Competing interests over changes to parkway
PennDOT’s proposed changes to the Bayfront Parkway represent the biggest upgrades to the downtown highway since its first stretch opened in 1990. The administration of Erie Mayor Joe Schember is among the supporters of the project. It is designed to improve safety as well as access to the bayfront in the parkway’s central corridor — the section nearest State Street.
PennDOT plans to build dual-lane roundabouts on the Bayfront Parkway at Holland Street and Sassafras Street Extension and to build a pedestrian bridge over the parkway at Holland Street and in time at Sassafras Extension, when funding becomes available. PennDOT also wants to lower the parkway beneath State Street to improve pedestrian and bike access, and to extend walking and bike trails.
The Erie branch of the NAACP and PennFuture said they want the additional studies on the project to examine not only the environmental impact, but also how the project will affect those who live near the parkway.
Summary judgment:New public hearings, environmental study sought in lawsuit over Erie’s Bayfront Parkway
In court records, the Erie branch of the NAACP and PennFuture contend that “high rates of impoverished residents and communities of color” live in the neighborhoods near the Bayfront Parkway, a situation the plaintiffs say requires PennDOT to “analyze potential impacts to those communities to ensure they will not be disproportionately and adversely affected by the project.”
Raising concerns:More voices must be heard to improve Bayfront Parkway plans, citizens’ group says
The defendants are arguing such claims have no merit.
“The Bayfront Parkway Project will benefit the neighboring environmental justice communities by improving pedestrian and bicycle access to the waterfront from those neighborhoods at each of the three intersections,” lawyers for PennDOT said in a filing to support the defendants’ request for summary judgment. “The pedestrian bridges at the Holland and Sassafras Extension Street Intersections will connect the residential areas on the high bluffs above those intersections to the waterfront across the Parkway.
“There currently exists no safe access to the waterfront for pedestrians and bicyclists at those locations,” according to the filing. “The Project will improve access to the waterfront for pedestrians and bicyclists at the State Street Intersection by diverting through traffic under the intersection. The Project will also connect missing links to complete the Bayfront Bikeway and multiuse trail through the Project area. PennDOT met with the neighboring environmental justice communities as part of developing the Preferred Alternatives for the Project, and these improvements are consistent with the feedback PennDOT received from those meetings.”
Contact Ed Palattella at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.