Pete Buttigieg is U.S. transportation secretary. Credit: Official Portrait

An advocacy coalition filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday against the U.S. Department of Transportation and Secretary Pete Buttigieg over a proposed road extension in Gulfport, arguing that the agency hasn’t thoroughly examined potential impacts to the area’s wetlands.

Gulfport officials are proposing the extension of Airport Road to reduce traffic congestion in a growing commercial section of the city.

The DOT approved a final environmental assessment in September, which found that the project, which could cost $48.5 million, would have “no significant impact.”

But the lawsuit’s plaintiffs — the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate and Health Organization (EEECHO), Sierra Club, and Healthy Gulf — say the DOT violated federal regulations by not conducting an environmental impact statement, or EIS, which is required for projects with a certain footprint.

The Federal Highway Administration, under the DOT, only required an environmental assessment, or EA, which has less rigorous requirements than an EIS.

Opponents argue the proposed road extension would worsen flooding in an area that already faces regular inundation, specifically the historic Black neighborhoods of Turkey Creek and Forest Heights.

“Our roads already get flooded, our church parking lot was recently flooded with six inches of water,” Lula Dedeaux, Gulfport Section president of the National Council of Negro
Women, said in a statement. “These wetlands have been recognized as Aquatic Resources of National Importance by the Environmental Protection Agency because they provide vital flood protection to the Forest Heights, North Gulfport, and Turkey Creek communities. The Connector Road will only serve to make these existing and dangerous flooding problems worse.”

The project’s proposal includes building a “retention pond” to provide some flood control, but the EA also states that “should development continue along the alignment, additional stormwater retention would be needed to mitigate stormwater flows.”

DOT awarded the project a $20 million BUILD grant in 2019.

The Sierra Club also argued that the project won’t achieve its advertised benefits.

“The reality is that $48 plus million in taxpayer dollars will do nothing to help traffic congestion,” Louie Miller, state director for Mississippi Sierra Club, said. “It’s clear the goal of this proposal is to promote new commercial development for the enrichment of politically connected, private real estate developers, at the expense of the local community.”

Mississippi Today reached out to the DOT and the city of Gulfport for comment.

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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.