As the House and Senate prepare to negotiate, a look at what House leaders wantApril 25, 2012
By Stephen Lee Davis
|Missouri Highway 61 Originally uploaded by GREDF to Flickr.
A House provision to undermine basic environmental safeguards and squelch citizen involvement was included in the three-month extension intended for conference with Senate.
House leaders last week passed their three-month transportation bill extension to serve as a “shell” to get them to the negotiating table with the Senate. But in order to keep more conservative members happy, they included three anti-environment provisions, two of which — the Keystone XL pipeline and de-regulation of coal ash — unrelated to transportation.
Under the guise of “speeding up projects,” the third provision would undermine basic safeguards to protect human health and the environment, and limit the right of citizens and stakeholders to have a say over projects that affect them. Our coalition is eager to build publicly vetted projects as quickly as possible and we’ve put forward a number of ideas for improving and accelerating the project selection process so that moving them to construction can happen faster and more smoothly.
But the House provision goes too far, trampling on local control and potentially degrading our air, water and land in the process.
So how would these provisions work out in reality? A few examples:
- The House bill would allow only 270 days for all environmental review and challenges to completed, regardless of the impact or complexity of the project. After that it would be automatically approved. So a mega-project like Boston’s $14 billion Big Dig – an incredibly complex undertaking that took years simply to engineer – would have to be fully reviewed in just nine months. Certainly, smaller projects should be approved in that window, but the House would treat a quarter-mile spur the same as a new super-highway. What sense does that make?
- Call this the “More Bridges to Nowhere” clause: Today, state DOTs proposing a big project are required to look at various locations and types of improvements to compare costs, assess the impacts on congestion, the environment and other issues. Under the new House regulation, if a powerful politician says, “I’d like a Bridge to Nowhere, please,” a DOT could just build it, without providing a full analysis. How can we ensure we’re getting the most bang for our buck if we’re not even studying whether or not a different project or option would give us a better result?
- Under the House bill, states would be allowed to use federal dollars to buy right-of-way for “long-range needs” and capacity for expansion for a 50- to 100-year period. But here’s the tricky part: A second change permits them to avoid environmental review for any projects carried out within that previously obtained right-of-way. This could mean that billions of federal highway dollars could be spent on new roads without any environmental review or requirement to address citizens’ concerns about them.
- Another change would prevent citizens from bringing a lawsuit against a project if they didn’t formally protest it early on in the process — even if the project is changed or altered during the review period. Shouldn’t we be empowering local communities to help make better decisions, not taking them out of their hands and giving a state bureaucracy the power to treat them however they like?
Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber (pdf), one of many state and local critics of these provisions, warned in a letter to Oregon’s congressional delegation that it “goes about regulatory streamlining the wrong way, exempting most projects from NEPA review and classifying all projects within the right-of-way as categorically excluded from NEPA regardless of their impacts.”
The Senate bill — a compromise bill itself, it’s important to remember — already has bipartisan provisions on speeding up project delivery and environmental review to get transportation projects built faster while still ensuring that local citizens have a voice and that projects don’t run roughshod over local environmental concerns.
The conference negotiators would do well to stick to the Senate’s bipartisan agreement already in place.