Considering the City: Building a Bayfront Highway
PennDOT's (i.e, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's) vision for the Bayfront is for a "Number One Level of Service" — a roadway where no vehicle ever has to stop. While ideal for an interstate, this vision is illogical for Erie's urban waterfront. Instead, a Presque Isle-like Bayfront Boulevard would catalyze sustainable economic development, protect the environment, and transform the Bayfront into a vibrant, walkable destination, attracting and retaining the residents needed to revitalize the city.
Bigger roads make traffic worse (induced demand)
Writing in Wired magazine, Adam Mann explained that "building bigger roads actually makes traffic worse" through a process of induced demand. Mann cites a study by Matthew Turner (University of Toronto) and Gilles Duranton (University of Pennsylvania) which documents the one-to-one increase in traffic that follows an increase in capacity. When a city increases its roadways by 10 percent, driving increases by 10 percent.
Today, much of the Bayfront remains undeveloped, yet traffic is jammed up regularly because of induced demand. PennDOT's data reveals that 80 percent of Bayfront traffic is using the roadway as a bypass. Their plan to "improve" the Bayfront has been framed as necessary in order to alleviate present and future congestion that will follow future development. But, when PennDOT finishes increasing the Bayfront's capacity, at least twice as many drivers will choose to use it — creating even more congestion and doubling noise, air, and water pollution. How is this going to help Erie?
In a 2021 New York Times story, Norman Garrick, a University of Connecticut professor who "studies how transportation projects have reshaped American cities," was quoted saying that by constructing highways over the last half century to "accommodate cars and commuters" many cities "basically destroyed themselves." Today, cities around the world are removing their highways and reconnecting the urban grid to restore a "sense of place."
PennDOT's Bayfront plans
At an Erie County Planning Commission meeting, a PennDOT staffer described plans for "highway style" ramps, exits, an underpass at State Street, and two large, double-lane roundabouts at Sassafras and Holland streets. He confirmed that the existing sidewalk on Holland will be removed to create another vehicle lane and that pedestrians will be prohibited from crossing the Bayfront at Holland. With the removal of the sidewalk, those residents walking or biking from the east side will be forced to use a (yet-to-be constructed) overpass.
The new pedestrian bridge will create a longer, less-direct route (concluding a multi-story switch-back ramp) that will likely double crossing time. Few of the residents who use the Holland sidewalk are aware of PennDOT's plans to block pedestrians from this well-used route. Those who drive to the library will be frustrated to learn that the Holland roundabout will absorb up to half of the current library parking lot.
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
The current PennDOT Bayfront plan (typical of the kind of infrastructure planning in the Robert Moses era of 60 years ago) shouldn't be happening today. The 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was designed to ensure that governmental agencies examine the impact of all federally-funded projects on the air, water, soil, and the quality of life through an environmental assessment (EA).
Big difference: EA vs. CE
An EA is a lengthy process that features a public hearing where all parties speak under oath to prevent the kind of misleading narrative that PennDOT has orchestrated. A categorical exclusion (CE) is an "excused absence" for non-controversial infrastructure projects that pose little risk to the environment (such as bridge maintenance or road repair) allowing these projects to skip the EA.
PennDOT avoids an EA and public hearing
PennDOT applied to the Federal Highway Association (FHWA) and was granted a categorical exclusion. This was wrong. Massive projects like PennDOT's should receive a full environmental assessment. In their CE application paperwork, PennDOT claimed that their Bayfront expansion project will have minimal environmental impact and that their plan faced "no substantial controversy." Both claims are false, but the FHWA granted PennDOT a CE.
Federal civil rights lawsuit
In 2020, EarthJustice filed a lawsuit challenging the Bayfront project because "PennDOT's pre-selected project design prioritizes cross-city commuters over the health, safety, and bayfront access of downtown residents." On behalf of both the NAACP and PennFuture, Earthjustice explained that PennDOT's project "further segments historically marginalized and environmental justice communities." The Earthjustice lawsuit opposed PennDOT's circumvention of the required EA.
On Dec. 30, 2022, two years after the lawsuit was filed, Judge Susan Paradise Baxter ruled in favor of PennDOT and the FHWA supporting their claim that skipping the EA was justified because PennDOT's project wasn't controversial and will not significantly impact the environment. Neither claim is true.
The judge's ruling asserts that the documentation from PennDOT/FHWA proves that there are "no adverse impacts to . . . threatened or endangered species . . . " However, PennDOT's own document, a "Field Scoping View" dated Feb. 2, 2018 cited a list of threatened / special concern on page 3: the PA-DCNR listed the yellow Bidens laevis, a member of the daisy family; the PA Fish and Boat Commission listed 16 fish including lake sturgeon; and the PA Game Commission listed three birds that may be impacted — the American coot, marsh wren, and the peregrine falcon — a bird theoretically protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The same PennDOT document admits that environmental impacts could be triggered by design changes unanticipated in 2018. Increased roadway surfaces will require additional salt during winter months. The roadway run-off will increase. Any waterfront roadway project that doubles traffic volume will significantly impact the environment. It is illogical to claim otherwise (as PennDOT does).
Ruling mislabels "controversy" as "opposition"
Judge Paradise Baxter states that there was no project criticism besides those of the plaintiffs — NAACP and PennFuture. However, significant controversy regarding PennDOT's plan existed prior to the FHWA's granting of a CE (June 15, 2020) and before the lawsuit in December of that year. For instance, in January 2019, the Erie Times-News published Michael Fuhrman's op-ed "PennDOT is Trying to Solve the Wrong Problem." In August 2019, the Erie Times-News published Lisa Austin's "What Kind of City Do We Want?" and in October 2019, Strong Towns published an audio interview with Adam Trott and Roland Slade regarding the community's concerns surrounding PennDOT's Bayfront plan.
Former Erie City Council President Liz Allen reported that at a virtual City Hall hearing on Sept. 24, 2020, (organized by Council members Allen, Brennan, and Schaaf) more than two-thirds of the 144 citizens' oral and written responses were opposed to PennDOT's plan. Allen noted, many "younger people — including downtown business owners" let council know that they "don't think it's a good plan." Many called for an environmental assessment.
In her ruling the judge does not acknowledge the many publications, along with numerous residents who spoke at City Hall. A Bayfront Coalition letter from June 10, 2020 signed by 14 local agencies and 17 individual community leaders outlines environmental threats and urges a full environmental assessment. In her decision, Judge Paradise Baxter never acknowledges the Bayfront Coalition letter and instead relies on the FHWA and PennDOT's claims of "no substantial controversy" as a statement of accepted fact which dismisses the fundamental basis for the complaint by Earthjustice. She arrived at the decision without an on-the-record, legally-binding public hearing, thus shielding PennDOT and the FHWA from accountability for their misleading characterizations.
To begin her decision, Judge Paradise Baxter uses PennDOT's own narrative to justify the project. This is both prejudicial and misleading because PennDOT was permitted to change their narrative after controversy arose. This allowed PennDOT to falsely claim that pedestrian and bicycle needs were their first priority despite their design showing non-vehicular traffic to be a distant, secondary consideration.
Encouraged by President Eisenhower's 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, traffic engineers built highways around and through U.S. cities. The location of these massive structures within cities has divided neighborhoods and harmed residents. These kinds of infrastructure projects contributed to disinvestment in low-income, minority neighborhoods, one of a set of government-mandated initiatives known today as "redlining."
Though late to this kind of infrastructure redlining, Erie is catching up. After I-90 was completed in the rural areas south of the city in 1956, a vision of an Erie "beltway" was conceived. In 1979, some westside neighborhoods were divided as I-79 was constructed to connect Erie to Pittsburgh. In 1989, the Bayfront rail-tracks were replaced by the Bayfront Highway, Route 4043. The Bayfront Highway's name was changed to the Bayfront Parkway in 1995, though there is nothing park-like about the Bayfront Parkway.
In 2005 a new four-lane arterial highway was constructed from I-90 to the Bayfront. This new roadway — Route 290 / Bayfront Connector — gashed through struggling Eastside neighborhoods near the city's long-neglected McBride Viaduct (East Avenue Bridge).
City Hall and PennDOT pursued and obtained a categorical exclusion to expedite the process of demolishing the viaduct. By doing so they avoided a public hearing and minimized public participation as they made plans to tear down the critical pedestrian and bike artery.
After PennDOT constructs the new Bayfront underpass and roundabouts, the arterial highway loop around and through the city, proposed back in 1963 by French planner Maurice Rotival, will finally be completed.
Erie will suffer for generations.
Lisa Austin is a social sculptor and Erie County planning commissioner. Janice Cole is a community advocate and a senior group member of the Booker T. Washington Center. Roland Slade is a community advocate, small business owner, and video collage artist. Adam Trott is principal at AJT Architect and former president of the American Institute of Architects Pennsylvania.
More information on CIVITAS can be found at lisaaustinpa.com/mission-and-history, Lisa Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Connect Urban Erie can be reached at email@example.com