Court Orders SCDOT to Answer for $150M Upper Santee Bridge
A federal appeals court refused to dismiss a lawsuit challenging South Carolina Department of Transportation studies endorsing a controversial bridge proposed for the Upper Santee Swamp.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit in federal court in 2006 on behalf of several groups alleging that studies completed for the $150 million bridge project — called the Briggs-DeLaine Pearson Connector — downplayed environmental impacts and ignored other needed transportation improvements, like repairing crumbling roads.
SCDOT argued that it did not have to answer in court for its studies. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond disagreed, and issued an order on Friday that requires SCDOT executive director Buck Limehouse to remain a defendant in the case.
“This order holds South Carolina officials accountable for pushing wasteful projects that block funding for needed improvements,” said Blan Holman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “In an age of shrinking budgets, SCDOT needs to forego the fat and serve up lean projects that solve real problems.”
According to SCDOT's own studies, the proposed connector would provide minimal transportation benefit, saving as little as three minutes in travel time between Orangeburg and Sumter. The studies also found the bridge would bring little economic development to the local area. A University of North Carolina transportation professor who reviewed the study concluded that even these benefits were overstated.
The road project would bisect a swampy swath of wilderness downstream of Congaree National Park, where the Wateree and Congaree rivers meet to form the headwaters of Lake Marion. Known as Upper Santee Swamp, the remote area has been revered by sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts for generations.
“Upper Santee Swamp is an incredibly valuable asset that needs to be preserved, not paved over,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, a plaintiff in the case. “The path to prosperity is through smart projects that improve the economy and the environment at the same time. This isn't one of them.”
With the appeals court order, the case now goes back to the United States District Court in Charleston for a trial on the studies' validity.
Congress has earmarked some $16 million for the project. Holman noted that in the past, funding for South Carolina earmarked projects has been redirected to other projects also in South Carolina. “If SCDOT decided to redirect this funding to another project, this case would probably be over,” he said. “It's up to them.”
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