by Ann Mesnikoff
Not every idea is a good idea. That’s why we brainstorm, assess options, consider other opinions, come up with ways to improve the idea, maybe even decide the idea wasn’t all that good and shouldn’t be pursued. When it comes to BIG ideas – like building a new highway or bridge that involves federal spending — the bedrock environmental law that requires environmental reviews, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), serves the important role of ensuring “brainstorming.”
Unfortunately, as the Trump Administration gears up to release its infrastructure proposal, NEPA’s role may get largely cut out of the planning process for federal projects, and we could end up with proposals that undermine clean air, clean water, protecting endangered species and more. Rather than focusing on ensuring we have the money needed to fix existing roads, bridges and transit systems and improve our rail network, the administration is attacking important environmental reviews and blaming them for blocking investment in infrastructure.
Importantly, NEPA ensures that we (the federal government, or state and local government, and the public) brainstorm, weigh different options, and consider impacts to the environment before an infrastructure project gets the green light. The fact is that a very small percentage of projects go through a full environmental review. Lack of money is the real barrier to fixing our infrastructure or building new projects.
For a good look at the NEPA process click here, but here’s a quick take. NEPA addresses a basic question: will the proposed project have a significant impact on the environment? If it is unclear whether there will be a significant impact, the agency performs an initial Environmental Analysis (EA), which is available for public comment. For most projects this initial EA, which can find there isn’t an impact, is sufficient.
But for projects that need a more in-depth look, the next step is a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which discusses and explains the environmental impacts of proposed project — will it impact a popular recreation area, a lake or river that people enjoy for swimming and fishing or maybe even rely on for drinking water? Will the project increase air pollution that could harm public health?
This process also requires analyzing alternatives and importantly gives the public voice in the process. If the original idea is that we need a new road to ease congestion, maybe it’s needed, but perhaps there’s a better route for that road. Maybe an investment in transit or repairing and upgrading an existing road offers a better solution. Maybe in the end that new road isn’t needed and we can spend money better elsewhere, perhaps fixing an existing road or bridge.
Here are few examples of how NEPA reviews have helped shape projects or proposals in Illinois and Michigan:
Illiana Tollway. The Illiana Tollway, a proposed public-private partnership toll road, would run, in part, adjacent to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie 52 miles southwest of Chicago. The staff of the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency, a planning group for the region, determined it was unnecessary and shouldn’t be built. ELPC is leading efforts, using NEPA, to block this tollway. Not only is this project a bad use of scarce transportation dollars, it endangers the ecologically sensitive prairie and wildlife.
Bell Smith Springs. The U.S. Forest Service proposed a plan to clear-cut 3,400 acres in the Shawnee National Forest, in Southern Illinois in the 1990s. The NEPA process revealed that this extensive logging would damage Bell Smith Springs, one of the most beautiful and pristine recreation areas in the National Forest. ELPC brought a lawsuit and the Forest Service ultimately decided not to remove timber from this special place.
Springfield High-Speed Rail. Springfield, Illinois, wanted high-speed passenger rail service, but also wanted to protect its downtown from excessive disruption from freight and passenger trains. A supplemental EIS helped the community identify a reroute of trains from the current 3rd Street corridor to the 10th Street corridor as the best long-term alternative while allowing incremental upgrades on the current 3rd Street line.
Petoskey Bypass. After an effective process including public engagement, the Michigan Department of Transportation in 2001 abandoned an environmentally damaging and disruptive plan to build a four-lane bypass in Petoskey in favor of supporting a transportation and land use planning process led by local citizens and governments.
NEPA is a deliberate process of brainstorming for big projects and it empowers the public to participate rather than simply trusting bureaucrats. It’s not surprising that in a recent poll 87% of respondents support investing in infrastructure, but importantly, 94% opposed gutting environmental safeguards.
Can the NEPA process be improved? Sure. But, gutting the NEPA process, along with undermining other environmental laws, and diminishing the voice of the public will not result in more money available for important and needed projects. It could mean a lot of money wasted on poorly thought-out projects.