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Editorial: Southernside needs a foot bridge

THE GREENVILLE NEWS EDITORIAL

Southernside needs a foot bridge

Southernside residents and their many friends have successfully used the power of community activism and the threat of federal intervention to get plans rolling for a pedestrian bridge to replace the Hampton Avenue truss bridge that was demolished almost two years ago and split a poor neighborhood in half. What has taken place over the past year proves that a seemingly forgotten neighborhood can get attention and justice when it comes together in the face of adversity.

Elected leaders who represent the Southernside area and longtime neighborhood leaders recently announced they have withdrawn a complaint filed with the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights. A year ago the federal agency agreed to investigate whether the S.C. Department of Transportation had followed procedures correctly in the demolition of the Hampton Avenue Bridge and whether Southernside residents were discriminated against during the process.

Once the Federal Highway Administration took an interest in whether Southernside residents were treated fairly, an odd thing happened. Suddenly state transportation officials took an interest in helping the local group fighting to get a new foot bridge over the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks carved deep into the earth below.

“We’ve made significant progress. As a result we have a better relationship with SC DOT,” state Rep. Chandra Dillard, who filed the federal complaint along with longtime Southernside resident Mary Duckett, said recently in a meeting with Greenville News editors and reporters. The group that includes other residents and elected leaders believe they have a viable solution, but Dillard said the group has a year to ask the federal investigators to reopen the case if the newly developed plans “go south.”

The new plans call for a pedestrian bridge to span the railroad tracks that sit below two steep hills. Up until 15 years ago a vehicular bridge crossed the tracks but it was closed to traffic. Neighborhood residents have contended the bridge fell into disrepair because it was not maintained.

The bridge was vital to the life of a neighborhood that until recent years had gotten little attention, and few financial resources, to address legitimate concerns. The bridge allowed the community to be whole. It made it possible for family and friends to visit each other. It allowed a neighborhood that has many people without cars to go shopping, seek medical care and even catch a bus.

To people who don’t live in the neighborhood and who never encounter any real problems with transportation, the Hampton Avenue Bridge that still was used by pedestrians was little more than a dangerous eyesore. State transportation officials were right to be concerned about safety, but they failed to listen to residents’ problems and provide an adequate alternative for them.

The proposed solution was a callous one. Namely, the residents could use the Pete Hollis Boulevard to get across the railroad tracks, and it was just 1. 5 miles away. To some people, the distance is what some people walk on an after-dinner stroll many nights. To Southernside residents, the distance was a hardship. A store or relatives suddenly were not the equivalent of a few blocks away. A 1.5 mile trip became 3 miles considering someone had to return the same way.

A pedestrian bridge will cost about $1.3 million, and Greenville County’s Transportation Committee already has pledged $500,000 to help with the project. The foot bridge for Hampton Avenue made it to the No. 2 spot on the list of projects that will be funded if Greenville County voters this November approve a 1 percent sales tax increase for road improvements that include bridges, resurfacing work and “pedestrian amenities” such as sidewalks. Dillard said her group has a Plan B if voters reject the idea of temporarily raising the sales tax to pay for road improvements. Clearly the Southernside effort will be helped immensely if the sales tax is approved and the funding is in place by the end of this year.

Details other than securing all the money must be worked out. Southernside leaders are confident those matters can be cleared up given the assistance they have gotten from Greenville County and the support of late from state transportation officials. This once-proud neighborhood has suffered greatly over the past few decades, and the residents deserve a bridge that once again will connect a neighborhood.

This post originally appeared in The Greenville News on 08/10/2014

Southernside environmental justice complaint

Agreement reached after environmental justice complaint

After a year-long environmental justice battle, the Southernside, SC neighborhood is seeing progress toward a new bridge.

Environmental Justice Complaint Background

SCSJ began assisting the Southernside neighborhood with their environmental justice complaint in the summer of 2013. SCSJ filed a complaint on behalf of state Rep. Chandra Dillard and longtime resident Mary Duckett, alleging that the state transportation department violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by excluding Southernside, “an economically disadvantaged community of color,” from the decision to demolish the bridge because of their race and income level. SCSJ also helped Southernside coordinate community meetings to bring together members of the Southernside neighborhood, local officials, and federal civil rights investigators to discuss the importance of the bridge.

In July 2014, SCSJ and Southernside announced plans to withdraw the Title VI complaint because new staff at the SC Department of Transportation seemed open to a collaborative process to resolve the bridge issue. Since the complaint was withdrawn, the collaborative process has been rapid and effective, with local newspapers reporting on August 4, 2014 that a plan is in place to build a new bridge to connect Southernside to the rest of Greenville, SC. In a meeting with editors and reporters of The Greenville News, Dillard, Duckett and City Councilwoman Lillian Brock Flemming said transportation officials are working with the county to build a new pedestrian bridge, estimated at $1.3 million, that will reconnect residents to the city that lies on the other side.

Funding the new bridge

$1.3 million is a lot of money for a local transit project. But local leaders seem committed to bringing the plan to fruition. According to the Greenville News:

County Administrator Joe Kernell said the county’s Transportation Committee, which funds different transportation projects using gas tax money, has already pledged $500,000 to help build the bridge. The rest would be paid for with a 1 percent sales tax hike, provided voters authorize it during the November referendum…

If voters reject the referendum, “We have a Plan B,” Dillard said. Options could include additional grants or gas tax allocations.

What comes next?

“We’re still not at the finish line,” said SCSJ attorney Allison Riggs. “But it is most encouraging that the Southernside neighborhood is being brought to the table and treated as equals. SCSJ will stay involved in the bridge replacement planning process to ensure that Southernside’s rights are protected.”

Read more about the Southernside Environmental Justice Complaint here.

Southernside environmental justice complaint

Victory in Southernside SC Environmental Justice Case

After more than a year of fighting, the Southernside Environmental Justice Title VI came to an amicable conclusion. The Title VI complaint filed by SCSJ in early 2013 stated that the South Carolina Department of Transportation violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by excluding residents of the Southernside neighborhood, an economically disadvantaged community of color, from the decision to demolish a pedestrian bridge that connected the community to the adjacent neighborhood. That Title VI complaint is now being voluntarily withdrawn due to a more collaborative relationship between the Southernside neighborhood and the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

“We were forced to resort to a Title VI complaint in 2013 because at that time the leadership at the South Carolina Department of Transportation would not respond to our concerns,” said state legislator Chandra Dillard. “Now that they are under new leadership that is willing to come to the table, we are no longer obliged to take such a confrontational approach,” continued Dillard.

Southernside

Representative Chandra Dillard

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 underserved residents of color in the neighborhood—a protected group under Title VI. “South Carolina Department of Transportation has taken positive steps in supporting our efforts to find a solution, and we believe they will continue to take the further necessary steps, especially in light of our withdrawal of the complaint, signaling that we are teammates rather than adversaries,” said Dillard.

“The Southern Coalition for Social Justice believes in finding the best solution for each community we represent,” said staff attorney Allison Riggs. “We are pleased that the Southernside neighborhood feels that they can resolve this matter amicably. By working directly with the South Carolina Department of Transportation and other key players, we can achieve a more collaborative and efficient resolution than we might through lengthy administrative action. This is a win for our clients.”

To learn more about SCSJ’s involvement in this case, read our blog post here.

Southernside

Southernside Community Meeting

Old photo of bill signed into law

Tough act to follow: 50-year-old civil rights law still the environmental justice standard

Article originally appeared at The Grist

By

Since 1928, the Hampton Avenue Truss Bridge in Greenville, S.C., helped connect the predominantly African American, low-income residents of the Southernside community with the grocery stores, pharmacies, and public buses on the other side. But the state demolished the bridge, which was in poor condition, in 2012 — a severance that means Southernside is now “likely to die,” says civil rights attorney Allison Riggs, because “quite frankly, there are just no economic generators on that side to keep it alive.”

Southernside residents, who were never consulted on the bridge removal, now have two options for reaching the rest of the city: Walk across the active Norfolk Southern Railway tracks (which the truss bridge once spanned), or take the Pete Hollis Blvd highway — a dangerous option for those without cars. Meanwhile, the more affluent, white Greenville denizens can get back and forth across the city without the same burdens.

It’s a case of a community that’s literally been left on the wrong side of the tracks.

“It’s a clear case of transportation racism,” says leading environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard, a dean at Texas Southern University. “The state legally has to treat everyone equally and fairly. This is a case where [the state] denied people their basic rights to comment and give their views.”

Riggs, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, filed a civil rights lawsuit last year against the state on behalf of the Southernside residents. Because of the transit and quality of life issues involved, Bullard included the suit in the recently issued report, “Environmental Justice Milestones and Accomplishments: 1964-2014.”

The 100-plus page document, which serves as a comprehensive chronology of the movement since its beginnings, was released in concert with the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898, signed by President Bill Clinton to address environmental justice issues. But many of the hundreds of cases in the report, including the case involving the Greenville truss bridge, reach farther back than Clinton’s order, to the bedrock law upon which much of the environmental justice legacy is based — the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Civil Rights Act is most often identified with the desegregation of public buses and busing to integrate schools. But it also has a key provision that ensures that people of color are able to access buses to begin with — and has also been used to ensure that minority communities are not subjected disproportionately to pollution.

That provision in is Title VI, which bars any program or project receiving federal funding from discriminating against people on the basis of race, ethnicity, nation of origin, or gender. For advocates of environmental justice, Title VI is the bridge to ensuring that economic opportunities and environmental protection are offered equally to all communities, not just the wealthy. It also protects people of color from being left out of discussions that impact the places where they live, work, and play.

“Any state or local agency that receives federal funds needs to be compliant with Title VI,” says Riggs. “Meaning, they need to recognize communities that have been historically marginalized and take steps to make sure they are included in these kinds of  decisions.”

Over the years, Title VI suits have helped shutter polluting factories, cap leaky landfills, and block zoning policies that placed undesirable development in or near communities of color. A 2001 Supreme Court ruling made it more difficult for private parties to sue under this title, however, and federal agencies have been inconsistent in bringing the claims themselves. And the Greenville bridge demolition is a classic illustration of how governments still fail to adequately consider race when making decisions.

African Americans make up about 30 percent of Greenville’s population, but they constitute 78 percent of the Southernside neighborhood. It’s also a mostly elderly community where a quarter of them don’t have cars, compared to a 6 percent carless rate throughout Greenville county. Consequently, many Southernside residents opt to cross the railroad tracks illegally or walk nearly two miles along the Pete Hollis highway to reach jobs and schools in the city. Four people have been injured walking the highway, according to the Southern Coalition for Southern Justice.

A decision on Riggs’ lawsuit is still pending, but it sparked a Federal Highway Administration investigation last summer, and FHA officials are now exploring relief options for the disconnected Southernside residents. Greenville county and a regional planning commission have committed funds to building a new pedestrian bridge.

But while a new, safe transit solution for these citizens is welcome, Riggs says she hopes that the court recognizes the principles of the case so that the state understands its obligations to comply with the Civil Rights Act on matters like this one.

Five decades after it was signed into law, the Civil Rights Act remains under attack. But without Title VI, slights to disadvantaged communities like Southernside would go unremedied, if they were noticed at all, which is why environmental justice advocates have relied on them heavily throughout their history. In fact, the first half of the Milestones report is pretty heavy with listings of Title VI suits, settlements, and victories.

“A lot of people think that our rights are equally enforced, but we’re not talking about 1954 and the bus boycotts, we’re talking about people’s rights being violated right now,” said Bullard. “The fact that people still recognize this today and not just laying back taking it, that in and of itself is something worth celebrating.”

This is a part of a series of stories marking the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s signing of Executive Order 12898, a landmark for environmental justice. Read more here and here.

Brentin Mock is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes regularly for Grist about environmental justice issues and the connections between environmental policy, race, and politics. Follow him on Twitter at @brentinmock.
Graffiti on Road Closed Sign

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.

Click here to support SCSJ’s work!

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.