The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and three residents who live near the Peace Bridge announced today that they are filing a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Justice Department claiming that the state Department of Transportation and others have failed to include residents in the planning process for a new traffic pattern around the bridge.

Natasha D. Soto, a community organizer with the coalition, said the state has held hearings on the proposed traffic project in the community but has conducted them only in English and Spanish and not the other languages spoken by neighborhood residents who come from Burma, Somalia, Malaysia and other countries and who have limited proficiency in English.

She said the failure to hold hearings in their languages violates their rights and amounts to discrimination against people of color and of low income.

She said the first hearing, or scoping session, was conducted in English in June at D’Youville College and that the coalition succeeded in getting the state to hold the second one in Spanish in October at the Connecticut Street Armory.

The coalition and the residents asked the Justice Department to investigate their complaint that the state DOT, the Federal Highway Administration and the Parsons consulting group, which is working on the project, have failed to provide members of the affected neighborhood an opportunity to make their voice heard in the planning process.

They urged the department to order the three parties to:

• Translate the outreach and project materials into Karen, Somali, Arabic, Burmese and Nepali.

• Hold three workshops in the community with translation services available. These workshops should focus on gathering feedback from residents on opportunities to mitigate the negative impacts of the project.

• Hold workshops in community centers or churches without armed guards present, noting that military personnel were in and around the Connecticut Street Armory during the October session.

• Extend the public comment period on the draft environmental impact statement for the project until Feb. 28 to accommodate these events and residents who did not have an opportunity to engage in earlier phases of the project.

The project, announced last March, would eliminate Baird Drive, which now takes Peace Bridge traffic through Front Park, and would replace it with a new entry ramp off Porter Avenue, just past Fourth Street, where an entrance to the northbound Niagara Thruway exists. The new ramp would feature either a roundabout or a traffic-signal intersection.

Soto said that plan would move the traffic closer to residents of the Lakeview housing project on Fourth Street, exposing them to air pollution and traffic congestion and limiting their access to Front Park.

“The residents want a plan to improve air quality in the area, and this won’t do it,” she said of the proposed traffic pattern.

Soto said the current traffic pattern using Baird Drive affects residents along Busti Avenue, while the new pattern moves bridge traffic onto Porter and Fourth, closer to the federally funded Lakeview housing project and its more than 200 residents.

“The new plan doesn’t improve traffic or air quality,” she said. “It just moves the problem to another neighborhood, primarily affecting people of color and low income.”

Erin Heaney, the coalition’s executive director, said that while it does not oppose the project, it has concerns about some aspects of the plan and believes that the DOT has violated the law on the public participation process.

A DOT spokeswoman said the agency went above and beyond the state and federal requirements for community input on the project. She said, among several actions, the agency sent notifications by mail to more than 3,400 people and held additional outreach events to provide the community with updates on the project.

The DOT said all project documentation is available on its website and hard copies of the draft environmental impact study are available at the public libraries, as well as at the regional DOT office.

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email: jstaas@buffnews.com

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