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Transport Contractors Urge White House to Revamp Enviro Review Rules

8:08 AM PDT on April 12, 2010

The trade group representing private-sector transportation contractors
is urging the Obama administration to change the way environmental
reviews are conducted for infrastructure projects, proposing to favor
"categorical exclusions" (CEs) from federal review rules over the
lengthier process of measuring the environmental impact of construction
work.

protected_bike_lane.jpgEnvironmental reviews added an
estimated $1 million to the cost of San Francisco's recent bike lanes,
seen above. (Photo: Streetsblog
SF
)

In a letter sent Friday to the White House Council
on Environmental Quality, which released new guidance on CEs [PDF]
earlier this year, the American Road & Transportation Builders
Association (ARTBA) lamented that
the existing law governing federal environmental reviews -- the National
Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA -- is too vague on the circumstances
that would require infrastructure project planners to pursue a quicker
CE as opposed to the costlier option of a full-scale review.

As a result, ARTBA President T. Peter Ruane wrote, local planners
often "opt for the more time consuming [environmental review] in order
to avoid potential litigation at a later time." Legal challenges citing
NEPA, filed by green advocates as well as their conservative critics,
have delayed work on transportation projects of
all stripes
in recent years.

Ruane continued in his letter to the White House:

For this reason, ARTBA also strongly supports the creation of unambiguous environmental review criteria that would favor the CEprocess (over a far more time consuming EA or EIS) where environmentalimpacts are clearly minimal unless there is “compelling” evidencewarranting a different course of action. Ensuring project planners knowwhen it is appropriate to use a CE without fear of possible legalrecourse would help reduce delay in the NEPA process.

In its guidance on exclusions from environmental review rules, the
White House noted "an expansion of the number and range of activities"
for which CEs were being chosen, adding that "inappropriate reliance on
categorical exclusions may thwart the purposes of NEPA."

All projects using federal funding or on federal land are subject
to NEPA rules, extending the law's reach past the U.S. DOT into most
other government agencies. Congressional Republicans have frequently
called for changes that would make NEPA more easily circumventable,
whether by waiving
it
for stimulus projects or preventing
climate change from becoming a factor in the rules.

Whether ARTBA's pitch for a standard "that would favor the CE
process" over a full-scale environmental review catches on among GOP
lawmakers remains to be seen.

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