The Nat'l Ass'n for The Advancement of Colored People Erie Unit 2262 v. Fed. Highway Admin.

Decision Date29 December 2022
Docket NumberC. A. 20-362 Erie
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Pennsylvania


A. Relevant Factual Background

The Bayfront Parkway (State Road 4034) is a state highway running east to west at the northern edge of the City of Erie Pennsylvania, dividing Lake Erie's Bayfront on the north from the Erie's downtown district on the south. The Bayfront is home to several amenities, including a public library, a Greyhound bus terminal, several public parks, a miniature golf course, the Erie Maritime Museum, a pier, the Presque Isle Yacht Club, several hotels, restaurants, the Bayfront Convention Center, several marinas, and pedestrian/cyclist pathways. All of these amenities are located on the north side of the Bayfront Parkway. As a result, the Bayfront Parkway is one of several barriers between the City and its waterfront that makes it difficult for the City's residents on the south to access the Bayfront's amenities safely. Other barriers include high bluffs on the south side of the Parkway, at both the Sassafras Street Extension and Holland Street intersections, and CSX railroad tracks located between the two intersections.

In June 2017, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) completed a Bayfront Parkway Feasibility Study (the “Study”) that focused on evaluating and providing conceptual improvements to the Parkway to: encourage more efficient and safe access to motorized vehicles; support pedestrian, bike and transit access to the Bayfront; enhance connections to downtown Erie and its neighborhoods; and support current and future development within the downtown and Bayfront areas (AR-1, at 8).[1] Among other things, the Study included a public survey that revealed that a majority of respondents did not feel safe walking or biking across the Bayfront Parkway (AR-3, at 9).

As a result of the Study, PennDOT initiated the Bayfront Parkway Corridor Improvement Project (“Bayfront Parkway Project,” or “the Project”). The stated 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 (SR 4034), to improve future congestion to an acceptable level of service or delay, and to improve traffic operations and efficiency” (AR-11, at 13).

On February 22, 2018, PennDOT held a scoping field view meeting for the Bayfront Parkway Project, which was attended by a representative of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), among others. At this meeting, PennDOT and the FHWA determined that the Project should proceed as an Environmental Assessment based on the alternatives under consideration at the time (AR-19, at 41).

On February 26, 2020, the FHWA formally approved PennDOT's scope for the Project as an Environmental Assessment (AR-11, at 3). The proposed project consisted of reconfiguring a one-half mile segment of the Bayfront Parkway at the three major downtown intersections at Sassafras Street Extension, State Street, and Holland Street, and completing a multiuse trail connecting all three intersections on the north side of the Bayfront Parkway to enhance pedestrian and bicycle access. In particular, the proposed project included modifying the Sassafras Street intersection to a dual lane three-leg roundabout; modifying the State Street intersection to a grade-separated signalized intersection with a new structure to carry State Street over the Parkway with interior ramps along the Parkway and an outside lane allowing through-traffic to pass beneath State Street; and modifying the Holland Street intersection to a dual lane four-leg roundabout. In addition, sidewalks, crosswalks, and a pedestrian bridge were also proposed to connect the residential neighborhood and downtown Erie to the waterfront (AR-11, at 5).

On March 31, 2020, PennDOT formally requested that the Project be “downscoped,” or reclassified, from an Environmental Assessment to a categorical exclusion under applicable environmental regulations (AR-13, at 2-6). The “downscoping” request stated, inter alia, that the Project would provide for a pedestrian bridge at Holland Street and would accommodate the construction of overhead pedestrian bridges crossing the Bayfront Parkway at both the Sassafras Street Extension and State Street intersections. (AR-13, at 5). On April 15, 2020, the FHWA approved PennDOT's request to downscope the Project to a categorical exclusion, acknowledging that “PennDOT has conducted extensive public involvement with a variety of stakeholders, which has resulted in no substantial controversy” and concluding that “the Project, as proposed, would not result in either individual or cumulative significant [environmental] impacts” (AR-19, at 41-42).

On April 29, 2020, PennDOT wrote and published a press release entitled “PennDOT Announces Preferred Alternatives for the Bayfront Parkway Central Corridor Improvement Project, Erie County and invited public comment through its website (AR-51, at 324-25). The press release stated that the preferred alternative for the Project would include [o]verhead pedestrian bridges at each intersection” (AR-51, at 324). In response to the press release, numerous written comments were received from the public, including those expressing concerns that the Project would increase vehicle traffic, would not improve pedestrian access to the waterfront, would not do enough to relieve congestion, would slow traffic through the addition of roundabouts, and would amount to unnecessary government spending (AR-24, at 58-61). In addition, concerns were expressed regarding the lack of a full environmental assessment (Id.).

On June 4, 2020, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (“PennFuture”) submitted a letter to PennDOT objecting to the downscoping of the Project to a categorical exclusion and requesting that an environmental assessment be prepared for the Project and that a public hearing be held (AR-52, at 507-509). On June 9, 2020, PennDOT submitted its Categorical Exclusion Evaluation (“CEE”) package to the FHWA (AR-19, at 4). On June 15, 2020, the FHWA formally approved PennDOT's request for “Level 2 Categorical Exclusion in accordance with 23 CFR 771.117(d), Item Number Other” for the Bayfront Parkway Project (AR-19, at 364). Thereafter, on June 22, 2020, PennDOT wrote a letter to PennFuture responding to each of the concerns raised in PennFuture's letter of June 4, 2020, and informing it that the CEE was approved by the FHWA on June 15, 2020, and that a copy could be found on the Project website (AR-52, at 536-37).

B. The Instant Lawsuit

On December 15, 2020, Plaintiffs National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Erie Unit 2262 (NAACP) and PennFuture filed a complaint against Defendants FHWA and PennDOT, challenging the FHWA's approval of a categorical exclusion for the Bayfront Parkway Project. In particular, Plaintiffs assert nine claims alleging that the FHWA's approval of the categorical exclusion was arbitrary and capricious, in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 701, et seq. (“APA”), the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”), the Federal-Aid Highway Act, 23 U.S.C. §§ 101, et seq., and two executive orders. In addition, Plaintiffs allege that PennDOT failed to hold a public hearing regarding the Bayfront Parkway Project in violation of the Federal-Aid Highway Act. As relief for their claims, Plaintiffs request declaratory and injunctive relief that would effectively stay all federal funding for the Project and remand the matter to Defendants for further consideration consistent with NEPA and the Federal-Aid Highway Act.

Presently pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment that were filed by the parties on October 14, 2022 [ECF Nos. 101, 104, 107]. The motions have been fully briefed and are now ripe for disposition.

C. Legal Framework for FHWA's Decision

NEPA requires federal agencies to comply with certain procedural requirements when undertaking any major action. 42 U.S.C. §4332. In particular, NEPA mandates that agencies take a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of their proposed actions. Robertson v. Methow Valley Citizens Council, 490 U.S. 332, 350 (1989); Twp. of Bordentown v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm'n, 903 F.3d 234, 248 (3d Cir. 2018). “NEPA itself does not mandate particular results, but simply prescribes the necessary process.” Id. at 350.

For an action that “significantly affect[s] the quality of the human environment,” an agency must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”), and if the agency is uncertain about the effect a proposed action will have, the agency must prepare an environmental assessment (“EA”) to determine whether an EIS is needed. 42 U.S.C. § 4332(C); 40 C.F.R. § 1508.9(a)(1). However, “Under NEPA, an EIS or EA is not required unless the contemplated action will affect the environment ‘in a significant manner or to a significant extent,' with significance defined in terms of both context and intensity.” Cty. of Seneca v. Cheney, 12 F.3d 8, 12 (2d Cir. 1993), quoting Marsh v. Oregon Nat, Res. Council, 490 U.S. 360, 374 & n.20 (1989). In some cases, an abbreviated EA will suffice. 40 C.F.R. § 1508.9. In other cases, an action may be entirely excluded from environmental review. Such an exception is called a “categorical exclusion” or CE.

The FHWA's procedures for categorical exclusions are found at 23 C.F.R. § 771.117. In general, actions...

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