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Stop Sprawl
The Road to Better Transportation Projects

Public Involvement and the NEPA Process: Community Input Threatened

Choose a state to see some examples of the NEPA review process:
Oregon | Nevada | Montana | Colorado | Wisconsin | Michigan | Kentucky | Florida | Ohio | Virginia | Rhode Island | Massachusetts

Faster is better. For decades, this has been a basic American value. E-mail zips across the country, replacing "snail mail." Media cycles become shorter and shorter. We are tempted to cut corners to accomplish jobs more quickly. But sometimes bending or breaking the rules for the sake of speed can have disastrous consequences. Sometimes quality of work matters as much or more than speed.

This report is about a landmark law requiring the federal government to examine alternatives and seek to minimize harmful effects of federally funded projects, like highways, which have the potential to damage our health, environment and quality of life. 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.

Public participation and environmental review are fundamentally important to the development of high quality projects and protection of natural resources. They have contributed mightily to the enhancement of road and bridge projects all over the country and they are responsible for the level of environmental quality Americans enjoy today. However, the public participation and environmental review processes now face serious threats from shortsighted proposals from the Bush Administration and the road construction lobby, who seek to limit these critical phases of project development by weakening provisions of NEPA as they apply to highway construction.

Transportation, Community Development, and Natural Resources

Over the course of the twentieth century, our nation built a tremendous network of roads and highways. The U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that the nation’s highway and road network equals a staggering four-million miles. The pavement of roads and the cars and trucks that travel on them leave a big imprint on communities and the environment. Haphazard highway development and the subsequent sprawl that follows it chews up open space and wildlife habitat at an alarming rate. America is now losing an incredible two million acres of land a year to development.

Automobiles are a major source of the air pollutants that have left 137 million Americans living in places where the air is unhealthy to breathe, according to the American Lung Association. Polluted runoff damages the water quality of our streams, lakes, and rivers. Of the 38 percent of our estuaries that are impaired, 46 percent of that impairment is due to polluted urban runoff, according to a 1996 Environmental Protection Agency report to Congress. Neglecting to look at the effects of how a new highway will impact the local community and its environment is a mistake with significant consequences.

The Road to Better Transportation Projects

Fortunately, NEPA required reviews help reduce this environmental damage by improving the quality of transportation projects. NEPA not only requires that the impacts be studied, but that alternatives be pursued in cases where the damage will be significant. Additionally, NEPA requires public inclusion in the decision-making process. NEPA has thus led to many positive modifications, which have resulted in transportation projects that "fit better" into communities. This report takes a critical look at the role NEPA has played in a dozen road projects around the country. The projects profiled in these pages include testimonials from transportation officials, citizens, and others who were involved in project development.

These examples tell stories from every corner of the country. In the west, NEPA requirements provided the needed incentive to consider measures including shuttles and parking fees in order to reduce the negative effects of traffic in Oregon's Mount Hood Corridor. Thanks to procedural safeguards under NEPA, several parts of local communities, including farmland, were saved by better routing of Wisconsin’s Highway 26 Bypass. Building a new four-lane highway in Rhode Island caused less environmental damage due to NEPA-driven decisions about location and size of the facility.

And a project, in the aptly named Alligator Alley, crosses Florida’s priceless Everglades with reduced damage due to clever design techniques including 24 wildlife underpasses and fencing along 40 miles of the route to reduce roadkill. NEPA’s protections gave local citizens a seat at the table and spurred these innovations.

Environmental Review: The Convenient Scapegoat

In spite of NEPA's major role in including the public and mitigating environmental impacts of road projects, this indispensable statute is in jeopardy. President Bush signed an executive order in September of 2002 to undermine the environmental review process for transportation projects. This has spurred additional proposals to weaken these protections. Why is NEPA under attack? It is targeted because the highway builders have been aggressively promoting the convenient although false argument that NEPA is to blame for delays in road construction.

However, limiting public involvement and weakening environmental review are not the best ways to achieve greater efficiency. Proponents of these measures claim that such reviews cause unnecessary and significant delay. While it is true that the process of producing an environmental impact statement (as opposed to a less intensive "environmental assessment") requires time — especially when the project is controversial — the fact is that they slow down only a very small percentage of projects every year. There are fewer and fewer such full-blown reviews; the number filed in 2001 — about 500 — was less than a quarter of the approximately 2,000 statements filed in 1973. Today, a mere three percent of federally funded transportation projects require an EIS.

In most cases, environmental reviews are not a significant time killer. In a 2000 study of 89 projects that had been delayed at least five years, the Federal Highway Administration found that environmental impact statements were not the major cause of delay. According to the study, the most significant factors slowing down these projects were lack of funding, local controversy, low priority, and project complexity, which collectively accounted for 62 percent of the delays. The remaining 38 percent included a range of other factors, including environmental concerns. Endangered species and wetlands accounted for only seven percent and four percent of delays, respectively.

A Better Way to Go

While the evidence is clear that public and environmental reviews improve the quality of our roads and have little to do with project delays, the NEPA process is not perfect and there are methods to improve it. Natural resource agencies could do their job more efficiently if they had appropriate budgets for staff and tools for conducting reviews so that better projects can be delivered faster.

For instance, federal and state agencies are trapped by outdated technology. A 2000 National Research Council report recommended some specific ways to enhance the review process. The suggestions included: new collaborative planning and design processes, use of (geographic information systems) GIS to determine natural and community constraints on a project (called "gap analysis"), and computer visualization programs that allow users to view a proposed project and its potential impact in three dimensions. Better support for these agencies and updates of their tools and technology would go a long way toward speedier, higher quality project delivery.

Possibly the most promising — and commonsense — way to reduce delay is to establish early partnerships and coordination among stakeholders. The earlier that everyone affected is brought together to assist with the design of a project, the less likelihood there is for opposition further down the road. A recent Government Accounting Office study confirmed this: 30 of 33 transportation experts indicated that this approach has great or very great potential for reducing project delivery time.

America is known for its open roads. But just as our highway system is integral to our way of life, so are the laws that protect our communities and the natural resources we treasure. Since roads cannot be "unbuilt," sensible protections such as NEPA — which guarantee project review and public involvement — should be safeguarded and not targeted in the name of expediency.

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