Earth to Congress: We Need Environmental Stewardship not Streamlining

Tuesday at an Eno Center for Transportation debate with Greg Cohen of the American Highway Users Alliance I argued against environmental “streamlining” provisions in the bills before the House-Senate conference committee that claim to reduce transportation project delivery times by “streamlining” and enhancing coordination of environmental review procedures.

I started by pointing out that these provisions being debated by Congress, especially in the House Republican transportation proposal, undermine the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires that Federal agencies conduct environmental reviews to consider the potential impacts on the environment by their proposed actions for major projects that they fund, plan or issue permits for. These take time, and they should if they are to be thorough and accomplish their intended goal. One of the originators of the law (and one of my all-time heroes), former Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, referred rightly to the statute as requiring a "look before you leap" approach when spending taxpayer dollars.

Further, if the purpose of the policy is to reduce project delays, it's quite clear that environmental reviews are far from the only factors that may be time-consuming. There is a vast number of issues that can cause hold ups—financing being a major one in this current economic climate, and local controversies and sheer project complexity creating drag.

So if reducing project delays is the name of the game, tools other than broad legislative changes that invite unintended consequences such as one-size-fits-all deadlines, imperious default approval of projects or limits on alternatives review should be considered. And, as I've said many times before, states and the federal government need to perform more robust statistical analysis of project delays and not rely wholly on anecdotal evidence.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which took effect in 1970, requires that federal agencies study and disclose the environmental effects of their actions and include the public in the decision-making process for federally funded projects.

In the last 42 years it has made a big difference in reducing the harmful social, economic and environmental effects of federal actions in transportation. NEPA has since been copied – at differing degrees of faithfulness – by most states and 83 nations (*correct number is actually 160 nations--thanks to a friendly reader who caught this mistake) It is a means, not an end, to better objective management of projects based on their effects. The law also created a Council on Environmental Quality, and required that environmental impact statements be prepared for major federal actions having a significant effect on the environment.

Thanks to this important law, countless projects that would have had significant harmful effect on the environment have either been avoided or completed with lower environmental impact. A few examples are:

  • The I-70 in Colorado—initial plans for the Glenwood Canyon section included blasting through mountains, adding artificial supports, and channeling the Colorado River. A citizen’s advisory committee, with better local knowledge than larger government agencies and bureaucracies, recognized the serious impact of the proposed plan. Thanks in large part due to NEPA’s procedural protections, the committee became an active part of the process. The result is a 12.5-mile stretch of highway with lower environmental impacts, the addition of rest stops, bike and jogging paths and rafting support. I have driven this stretch of highway, and hiked up to a beautiful park abutting the highway, fittingly called "Hanging Lake," which would have been destroyed under the first highway design. 
  • In the mid-90’s, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) was pushing for a four-lane freeway parallel to an existing two-lane highway at a cost of $1.5 billion. It would have damaged habitats, forests, wetlands, and rivers. The adjacent community was against the expansion and in favor of upgrading the existing road. After reviewing MDOT’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS,) the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) saw that MDOT did not review alternatives to the expensive new freeway. Thus, while it did add to the delay, they required MDOT to go back and look at these alternatives. In the end, the upgrade was completed instead of building an entire new freeway, saving a great deal of taxpayer money and reducing environmental damage.
  • The North Carolina Department of Transportation failed to do an adequate EIS for the Monroe Bypass Project in 2006. When challenged in court, the agency and FHWA admitted that the no-build alternative considered as part of the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s modeling actually included a toll road in question. The agency went back to the drawing board to perform a credible alternatives analysis.

If the proposed “streamlining” provisions were in place, or if NEPA had been weakened, these examples would have been cautionary tales, instead of proof the process is working. Colorado may have gone with the ugly and destructive through-the-mountain route without having to consider alternatives; Michigan may have moved forward with what Friends of the Earth deemed as one of the “Fifty Most Wasteful Roads in America;” and if North Carolina’s DOT was up against streamlining deadlines, they may have gotten away with misleading and faulty modeling scenarios.

Scapegoating environmental reviews as the reason projects are delayed is not helpful for getting new transportation investments. The public supports a balanced approach to investments, and environmental advocates support more infrastructure investment.

Fixating on this as the sole reason for project delays misses the mark badly, and puts the federal program in more jeopardy by reducing not building support for it.