Friday, October 22, 2010

environmental impact assessments

Nice article by Anne Steinemann on how alternatives get selected and analyzed in environmental impact assessments under NEPA.

I was just thinking about related issues - why do we have so much resistance to innovative transportation planning? Could the problem lie with environmental assessment?

Steinemann confirms (somewhat anecdotally) that alternative projects are often boxed out by the project objectives as stated by the agency, or are eliminated later as not being "cost effective" where the costs are defined narrowly (in terms of agency or construction costs - benefits don't seem to be a factor).

Other problems involve difficulties integrating agencies. I chuckled when I read this: As a federal highway agency official said, "Why would we want to pursue transit alternatives, and give some of our money to them?"

Right, so FHWA/FTA are competing for the same funds, FHWA is the lead agency, why would they want money to go towards a transit project?

This type of initial foreclosure is even happening with the bit of innovative planning that's going on in California in response to SB 375. It's even a little more insidious. SACOG is conducting a series of workshops presenting the pubic with (four?) alternative futures for transportation. Two are extreme and one is status quo. The other is a reasonable middle ground. Obviously folks are choosing that one. What good is a public process if the outcomes are determined in advance?

A related article by Michael Smith reviews appellate court decisions involving NEPA alternatives analysis. He finds that the "purpose and need" statement can be circumscribed by an agency who is conducting an environmental assessment in response to an application by a private party. So, if I want to build an oil pipeline through a wetland, I need only apply to the relevant agency who can then compare the project to a "no-build" scenario. No other alternatives need be assessed so long as the agency provides some justification. This is the primary lesson from the paper - that if an agency gives some justification for the exclusion of an alternative, it will likely be successful in court should the environmental review be challenged.

Smith's article leaves me feeling a little more pessimistic than Steinemann's. His conclusion that
if federal agencies construct a solid and legitimate statement of purpose and need, analyze [a] reasonable range of alternatives in detail that stems directly from that purpose and need, and explain clearly and with rational reasoning [?] why they are dismissing other alternatives to their project that may appear reasonable, they will nearly always be successful if they face future litigation...
So, he's basically laid out a roadmap for agencies to follow if they want to avoid being defeated in litigation whereas Steinemann has an eye toward improving the process (conducting assessments earlier, involving the public in deciding alternatives). Clearly the extant alternatives assessment is broken. Why would we keep it as is?

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