Little-Known Law Protects Public From Being Steamrolled in Rush to Build Roads

New Report Shows Local Involvement, Scientific Analysis Key to Better Transportation Projects

WASHINGTON (August 18, 2003) -- A largely overlooked federal law requiring the government to allow public input and review environmental consequences before approving major transportation projects has been a success, according to a report released today by the Sierra Club and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), requires federal agencies to study and disclose the environmental effects of federally funded road and highway projects and to involve the public in their planning.

The report, "The Road to Better Transportation Projects: Public Involvement and the NEPA Process," makes the case for preserving NEPA protections in the face of White House efforts to expedite federal road-building projects. The Bush administration, at the behest of the construction industry, has proposed changes in the law that would weaken requirements for environmental review and limit public participation, ostensibly as a way to speed up transportation projects. Studies show, however, that NEPA actually makes projects better and helps to avoid costly and often irreversible problems down the line.

"NEPA makes transportation projects better," says Neha Bhatt of the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign. "In project after project, NEPA has given us the information and the input we need to make smart transportation choices and protect our quality of life."

While America's immense highway system provides many benefits, it also takes a toll on communities and the environment. Sprawling roads and development chew up open space and wildlife habitat at the rate of two million acres per year. Automobiles spew tens of thousands of pounds of toxic pollution into the air each day, exacerbating health problems for millions of Americans. Runoff from roads and parking lots is responsible for nearly half of the pollution in our waterways and estuaries. NEPA-required reviews help avoid or minimize environmental harm and give local citizens the opportunity to get involved.

"We need NEPA because there's no such thing as a 'do-over' in highway construction," says Deron Lovaas, deputy director of NRDC's Smart Growth program. "Without this law, people wouldn't have a voice in how and where roads get built."

NEPA Works

The report details a dozen road projects across the country that highlight the successful role NEPA has played in transportation policy. The states featured are:

COLORADO -- Due to the involvement of a citizen's advisory council consisting of architects, conservationists, and others, plans for Interstate 70 maximized the preservation, beauty, and integrity of Glenwood Canyon.

FLORIDA -- A road that crosses the Everglades in the aptly named "Alligator Alley" features clever design techniques that reduced environmental damage, including 24 wildlife underpasses and continuous fencing along 40 miles of the route to reduce road-kill.

KENTUCKY -- The National Trust for Historic Preservation cited Paris Pike as a model of how to expand a road to ease congestion without inflicting irreparable harm to an historic and natural landscape.

MASSACHUSETTS -- The $290 million effort to transform Route 146 from a two-lane access road to a four-lane parkway was accomplished while preserving unique physical and historic characteristics of the corridor.

MICHIGAN -- NEPA helped achieve much-needed safety and mobility improvements in the US 23 expansion, saving taxpayers about $1.5 billion in the process.

MONTANA -- Through environmental review and legal negotiations, transportation officials and tribal governments agreed to incorporate landscape design, preserve wetlands and install wildlife crossings into a 56-mile segment of Route 93 that runs through the Flathead Indian Reservation.

NEVADA -- Public comment provided through the NEPA process led to several improvements in the 3.5-mile Hoover Dam Bypass, including sidewalks and better parking facilities.

OHIO -- Early coordination in the NEPA process between state transportation officials and federal wildlife experts helped reduce damage to streams and wetlands from the reconstruction of US 24.

OREGON -- The 35-mile Mount Hood Corridor reinforced the wisdom of NEPA-required analysis, as local citizens living along the route were able to work with transportation planners and developers on a solution that eases traffic in this popular recreational area, but not at the expense of wetlands and endangered species.

RHODE ISLAND -- NEPA gave citizens the leverage they needed to modify a new four-lane freeway connection to save 50 acres of open space and reduce wetlands destruction by half.

VIRGINIA -- Local citizen groups worked with designers to develop a detailed plan to address traffic woes while preserving the character of the small towns along the Route 50 corridor, which runs through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

WISCONSIN -- Public input on the Highway 26 Bypass saved a local dairy farm and brought stakeholders together in a process that developed trust and consensus.

To read about these case studies, check out the full report at Sierra Club's website.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Sierra Club's members are 700,000 of your friends and neighbors. Inspired by nature, we work together to protect our communities and the planet. The Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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