Senate Requires Environmental Approval For Stimulus Projects

gs_parkway.jpgNEPA oversight should prevent the Garden State Parkway from being widened using stimulus funds.

The final draft of the Senate’s economic recovery bill will require all projects funded by the stimulus to
have approval under the National Environmental Protection
Act
, or NEPA. Sponsored by Barbara Boxer, the NEPA amendment (full text after the jump) was adopted late Thursday following
Republican attempts to exempt highway projects from environmental oversight.

For advocates of green transportation, NEPA protection will help deter the construction of additional road capacity, but it does come with a potential downside.

The provision should assist the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, for example, in its fight against the widening of the Garden State Parkway, a project on New
Jersey’s stimulus wish list. The state has tried very hard to avoid
federal oversight for this massive highway expansion project, going so far as to attempt funding it completely with toll revenue. Paying for the added lanes with stimulus cash should only be possible if the project can skirt NEPA.

While many are breathing a sigh of relief that the Senate fended off an end run around NEPA reviews, the application of 1970s-era environmental legislation could produce unintended consequences for deserving projects. Similar laws have been invoked to delay the implementation of San Francisco’s bicycle network for three years and to impede car-free parks in New York.

The debate over NEPA provisions in the stimulus began when Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY),
backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and at least 20 other business groups, pushed an alternative amendment that would have allowed any project receiving stimulus funds to get a waiver from NEPA if the environmental review
couldn’t be completed within 270 days. The average NEPA review for a
highway project lasts more than four years, according to the American Association of State Highway
and Transportation Officials.

The idea that environmental protections should be scrapped to stimulate the
economy isn’t new. Republicans have long argued that NEPA does more to
stall the economy than protect the environment. Last month, California
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger revived this line of thinking when he wrote to the Obama administration about
the stimulus package. Schwarzenegger
argued then
that streamlining NEPA and shortening the timeline for other
environmental reviews was key to getting the economy moving again.

With so much emphasis placed on getting projects moving as
quickly as possible, Barrasso’s proposal looked like it might pass. But Boxer, with the aid of many groups fighting the highway-addled amendment she pieced together with James Inhofe, argued that there were more than enough "shovel-ready"
projects on the table, clearing the way for the NEPA amendment.

Purpose:
To ensure the expeditious completion of National Environmental Policy Act
reviews under applicable law.

Insert at the
appropriate place:

Findings

The National
Environmental Policy Act protects public health, safety and environmental
quality: by ensuring transparency, accountability and public involvement in
federal actions and in the use of public funds;

When President
Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law on January 1, 1970,
he said that the Act provided the “direction” for the country to “regain a
productive harmony between man and nature”;

The National
Environmental Policy Act helps to provide an orderly process for considering
federal actions and funding decisions and prevents ligation and delay that would
otherwise be inevitable and existed prior to the establishment of the National
Environmental Policy Act.

Section 1

Adequate
resources within this bill must be devoted to ensuring that applicable
environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act are completed
on an expeditious basis and that the shortest existing applicable process under
the National Environmental Policy Act shall be utilized.

The President
shall report to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House
Natural Resources Committee every 90 days following the date of enactment,
until September 30, 2011, on the status and progress of projects and activities
funded by this Act with respect to compliance with National Environmental
Policy Act requirements and documentation.

  • jmc

    Somehow I doubt this is good news for any projects. Obstructionists can use environmental impact shenanigans to delay the construction of new transit systems as well (oh , but what about the snails!).

  • I \v/ NY

    wow trying to exempt new highway projects from environmental review and at the same time tying up in environmental review the painting some bike lanes on existing streets, thats some real looney stuff… sounds like typical american transportation policy.

  • I \v/ NY

    i agree we need to cut red tape with infrastructure in america, it shouldnt take 30 years to open a subway line that has local funding secured (cough cough Wilshire subway).

    but at the same time, the last thing that should get smooth sailing is new megalane expressways which you know will be the biggest benefactors of any transportation red tape cutting policies. there is little transportation infrastructure that has more negative impacts than a 20 lane freeway.

    all we need is common sense with environmental reviews, if there is a big impact no matter what it is, environmental review is essential, but for little or no impacts it is ridiculous to have these projects get tied up.

  • rex

    The federal NEPA is significantly different from the California version of it. Fed NEPA has a checklist provision, at the conclusion of the checklist you can conclude that impacts are de minimus and proceed with the project, or you can conclude that an EIS is required. The CA regulation has lots of BS about orientating a project toward the evaluation to traffic flow, which is why the SF bike plan got effed up. Many federal projects are a go/no go based on the results of the checklist. If the stimulus package has to be about “shovel ready” projects, then I would much prefer that NEPA not be suspended. Even if I don’t get what I want. I opted out of NY environmental engineering a long time ago, if someone has the straight poop on NY’s EIS requirement, I would love to hear about it.

  • Anonymous

    Does NEPA really have teeth? It hasn’t succeeding in stopping any number of terrible freeway and housing projects over the last 30 years.

  • James

    The issue with NEPA, CEQR, SEQR, and all the rest is that they are self-policing. There is no “NEPA Police” who can come and declare approvals invalid if some aspect of the process was not followed as much as it could have been or should have been.

  • Mary

    WE ARE THE NEPA POLICE….. WE THE PEOPLE!

    WE DECLARE APPROVALS INVALID IF SOME ASPECT OF THE PROCESS WAS NOT FOLLOWED…..

    US, THE PEOPLE NEED TO GET MORE INVOLVED BECAUSE THEY WILL DO WHAT EVER THEY WANT TO AS LONG AS WEEEEEE LET THEM!

    Look at Benton Harbor Michigan, where “they” are bulldozing through SACRED LAND in the name of “Progress” “Jobs” “Infrastructure” All along knowing that they can’t say the truth “It’s for the Money” or “For complete corporate control of the land” And “we the corporations are entitled to the most valuable commodity the (poor & minority people)have.
    Why they don’t deserve it, they are just poor black people.
    I still can’t get my mind around building a golf course in the dune and on the beach front to create “Green Space”. Well, the school system sucks in Benton Harbor, but WE KNOW BETTER THAN THAT.

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