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.
Environmental 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.