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Southernside Environmental Justice Case Progress

The demolished pedestrian bridge

The demolished pedestrian bridge

Earlier this year, SCSJ filed on behalf of the Southernside Neighborhoods in Action and two individuals a complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against the South Carolina Department of Transportation.  In the complaint, we alleged that residents of the Southernside neighborhood, an economically disadvantaged community of color, were excluded from the decision-making process behind demolition of a pedestrian bridge that connected the community to the adjacent town. The Hampton Avenue Bridge allowed easier access to a grocery store and pharmacy, among many other benefits.  While the Hampton Avenue Bridge was allegedly demolished due to age and disrepair, SCSJ found that old bridges that served more affluent communities were not demolished, and that its demolition had a disparate negative impact on the poor residents of color in the neighborhood—a protected group under Title VI.

This summer, the Federal Highway Administration, the federal agency with whom we filed the Title VI complaint, opened an investigation into the case, which was the first big win for SCSJ’s clients.

SCSJ staff and clients take investigators on the 1.5 mile detour created by bridge removal

SCSJ staff and clients take investigators on the 1.5 mile detour created by bridge removal

Yesterday, two federal investigators were onsite examining where the demolished bridge was, and what the alternative was that SC DOT suggested (a 6-lane highway bridge that adds 1.5 miles to the trip, one-way).  We first took the investigators on that 1.5 mile walk.  We explained to them that now that the pedestrian bridge is gone, people either have to walk very far out of the way on a very busy highway (at least 4 people have been injured in recent years using the 6-lane road for pedestrian crossing) or people illegally and dangerously cross the railroad under where the pedestrian bridge used to be because it’s just too hard/dangerous to walk across the major highway bridge.

After the walking tour, we had small group meetings with the investigators.  The first was with state legislators.  The second was with local elected officials.  The third was with “technical assistance folks”—folks who work with the city/county/local universities who had been supporting the Southernside neighborhood group in trying to keep the bridge.  These folks had all provided data that should have convinced SC DOT not to demolish the bridge, but SC DOT never meaningfully engaged with any of the data offered by the community.

community member 1

Finally, we had a big public forum at a church right across the street from the demolished bridge where community residents were given an opportunity to speak—the chance that SC DOT never gave them during the decision-making process. Approximately 75 community members were in attendance.  There had been a big rally and walk Sunday night to drum up attention for the investigators coming on Monday.  103 people attended that Sunday night event, and about half of them walked the 1.5 mile “alternate route.”

community meeting 2

At the public forum, folks got to share the effect of the demolished bridge and the further isolation and “choking” of this community.

SCSJ will continue to post updates as the Southernside Environmental Justice case moves forward.

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Post by SCSJ staff attorney Allison Riggs on September 10, 2013

Greenville SC Environmental Justice Case Moves Forward

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice provides legal counsel to Southernside Neighborhoods in Action, neighborhood leader Mary Duckett and state Rep. Chandra Dillard. This group of concerned Greenville community members is fighting the closure of the Southernside Bridge and resulting isolation of an already under-served community.

Southernside bridge removal spurs civil rights probe

Complaint lodged over decision

Aug. 1, 2013 8:15 AM   |
Hampton Avenue bridge on Thursday, June 14, 2012.
Hampton Avenue bridge on Thursday, June 14, 2012. / MYKAL McELDOWNEY/Staff
Written by Anna Lee

The old truss bridge in Southernside that came down last September is now the source of a civil rights investigation.

Spanning the railroad tracks just beyond Washington Street, the bridge was removed after the state Department of Transportation determined it was “fracture critical” and unsafe for pedestrians to cross.

The Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights has launched an investigation into a complaint accusing the transportation department of discriminating against Southernside’s largely black community.

The complaint, filed by neighborhood leader Mary Duckett and state Rep. Chandra Dillard, alleges that the Department of Transportation denied residents the chance to be involved in the decision to demolish the bridge because of their race and income level — violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

The complaint further alleges that the Department of Transportation violated the federal 1994 Executive Order on Environmental Justice, which Dillard said requires all DOT projects to address any adverse social, environmental or economic effects on minority or low-income communities.

Transportation department spokesman Pete Poore confirmed Wednesday that a civil rights complaint had been filed against the agency and said agency officials don’t comment on pending litigation.

The Federal Highway Administration has assigned an investigator to the case who will be “conducting a fact-finding effort in the coming weeks,” said agency spokesman Doug Hecox.

“If we think there’s merit in this, we would share it with the Justice Department who would then pursue it through the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Hecox said.

GreenvilleOnline.com first reported in July 2012 that Department of Transportation officials planned to have the bridge removed on Hampton Avenue because they said it was too expensive to fix and that residents would be able to use Pete Hollis Boulevard — 1.5 miles away — to get across the tracks.

Two months later, the bridge was torn down, and one of the last links between an already declining neighborhood and the rest of the city was gone.

Duckett, president of Southernside Neighborhoods in Action, said she couldn’t find anyone in the community who met with transportation department officials during the process.

Agency officials had been invited to meetings but never showed, Duckett said.

The Department of Transportation “completely failed to give community members any notice of the bridge’s coming demise,” according to a letter sent by residents to the FHWA.

It was like the nail in a coffin, Dillard said.

“Southernside has been beat up one side and down the other, first by the Western Corridor project, which closed off six access points to the community, and now this.”

If the FHWA rules that the Department of Transportation violated civil rights, Dillard said it could mean a change in decision-making policies within the agency so that other communities in the state wouldn’t have to go through what Southernside did.

“This is a big deal because it’s not often that communities get to this point,” she said.