Enviro Law Experts: Review For Bike Lanes a Waste of Taxpayer Money

James Oddo
City Council Minority Leader James Oddo. Photo: ##http://www.silive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/09/city_council_moves_to_ease_reg.html##SI Advance##

You know something’s amiss when you hear Republicans calling for more red tape and government bureaucracy, as Staten Island Council Members James Oddo and Vincent Ignizio did earlier this week with their call to require environmental review for all new bike lanes. But let’s indulge Oddo and Ignizio and take their proposal seriously for a moment. Does it have any merit?

We asked some top legal and planning experts for their opinion, and they agreed: Bike lanes generally don’t and shouldn’t need to go through environmental review.

Oddo’s office didn’t respond to Streetsblog’s request to see the letter outlining his proposal, but it seems as though he would have to pass new legislation. It’s fairly clear that under current law, striping a bike lane generally doesn’t require environmental review. There’s a presumption that small street changes like signage are exempt from environmental review, said Columbia Law School professor and environmental law expert Michael Gerrard.

Specifically, the law exempts the “installation of traffic control devices on existing streets, roads, and highways.” Pavement markings are included in the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, suggesting that bike lanes fall under that exemption.

Even if bike lanes aren’t categorically exempt, continued Gerrard, a given project may not be predicted to create a significant enough impact to require environmental review. That determination would be made, in this case, by the city DOT.

Bike lanes not only don’t need to go through environmental review, they shouldn’t, said former DOT First Deputy Commissioner Sam Schwartz, now the head of Sam Schwartz Engineering. “EIS laws and guidelines were established to protect the environment. If an action is not likely to meet the threshold set by regulation (and few if any bike lanes do), then why waste a ton of money?” Schwartz said. “Ironically, it would probably mean more work for my firm, but it’s a waste of taxpayer money.”

“No bike lane would fail an environmental review,” said Michael King, a principal at the transportation planning firm Nelson\Nygaard.

There will always be a positive environmental impact, he explained, something that the city often has to demonstrate anyway to receive federal funding. Environmental review would add another layer of expense and red tape, setting a threshold that King has never had to meet for the bike projects he’s worked on in a dozen cities around the country and the world.

So in case there was any doubt, Oddo’s proposal has nothing to do with improving the environment, or even proper attention to environmental procedures. It’s about throwing up road blocks to the continued expansion of the bike network (which, in his district, is already shrinking).

“That’s how you stall things, you study them,” said King.

Gerrard said that providing an environmental assessment would take around three months for each bike lane and that completing a full environmental impact statement could take 18 months or more. “I assume this is being proposed to throw up an obstacle to making bike lanes,” he said.

While noting that there’s a tension between the environmental benefits of more bike lanes and of a strong environmental review process, Gerrard concluded that “it would be unfortunate if the environmental laws were used excessively to impede environmentally beneficial actions.”

There’s also a strong case to be made that, regardless of how many supporters Oddo and Ignizio may find on the Council, they have no legal authority to force bike lanes through environmental review. The city’s review process is regulated by state law, the city charter, executive order and administrative rules, not by Council legislation.

Bike lanes don’t need environmental review as it stands. Forcing them to go through it would be a costly and unnecessary exercise in violation of the purpose of environmental review, the end result of which would be more dangerous streets.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “If an action is not likely to meet the threshold set by regulation (and few if any bike lanes do), then why waste a ton of money?” Schwartz said. “Ironically, it would probably mean more work for my firm, but it’s a waste of taxpayer money.”

    No taxpayer money would be wasted, and there would be no work for his firm, because there would be no more bike lanes. That’s the idea. Bike lane opponents had hoped to use cost as an argument, then found out how cheap bicycle infrastructure is. This was the response — making them artificially expensive.

    It’s just like insurance for bicycles. Auto insurance costs, say, $1,500 per year, with $200 for paperwork and profit and $1,300 for claims. Bicycle insurance would cost $210, $200 for paperwork and profit and $10 for claims.

    An environmental review, if imposed, would account for nearly all of the cost of bike infrastructure.

  • This is hilarious. Why not turn it around? Demand that ALL road projects have environmental reviews. Given that cars are seriously polluting, and bikes are not, it would lead to bike lanes on EVERY ROAD!!!

  • Review every road project! License every cyclist! Police every rider! Yes! Yes! Bring it on!

    THE BANKRUPTCY OF THE STATE!

  • J

    Nice work, Noah. This pretty definitively destroys any argument that Oddo had, while exposing his severe hypocrisy in his ideology.

    I feel better already.

  • Team OFS (old, fat, slow)

    Giving the men a possibly huge benefit of the doubt…..Perhaps they’re suggesting that if a bike lane replaces an existing lane for vehicle traffic or is “built” instead of a lane for vehicle traffic, then it should require an enviro impact report. Removing a lane for cars could increase auto congestion, leading to more auto traffic, more cars idling in said traffic, which is a much larger cause of pollution than cars moving at the speed limit…….Or maybe they just hate cyclists?

  • Certainly I would demand any bike lane -removal- get an environmental review.

  • We saw this tactic at the City Council hearing on bicycles, where some committee members suggested requiring, by law, that the DOT to come to community board meetings on a set schedule before making changes to any street. The only thing is that the DOT already does this, without any law requiring them to do so, and they do so at the convenience of local CBs, which can’t always act on a set schedule.

    But leave it to another press-hungry city council member to legislate, at great cost, what a department already does voluntarily, at low cost.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I Already Nominate this for Quote of the Year:

    Schwartz said. “Ironically, it would probably mean more work for my firm, but it’s a waste of taxpayer money.”

    If that doesn’t convince Oddo…..well he’s not thinking properly.

  • mfs

    @Doug, the DOT actually does need to offer to come to the Community Boards and present if requested, according to Local Law 90-2009.

  • You have to get Hugo Weaving to play Councilmember Oddo for Streetsblog: The Movie!

  • mfs, that’s my point. Adding another law with a set schedule, which is what some city council members suggested, would complicate a process that seems to be working fine already. Instead of forcing a timeline on the DOT, which might not work with local CB’s schedules, the DOT comes at the CB’s convenience.

    They’ve made multiple trips to CB6 before and after the installation of the PPW bike lane. Requiring them to do so at a time specified by law would only add red tape, scheduling conflicts, and financial costs to a process that’s working fine, Daily News editorials and mayoral statements aside.

  • Woah guys! no Rob Anderson reference? You guys need to dig into the history of this.

    Some years ago, San Francisco resident Rob Anderson sued the city of SF for this very reason – and WON in court. Google it. Eventually the EIR was performed (at huge expense) despite any semblance of common sense. But it took over 3 years during which it was temporarily illegal to stripe a single bike land in SF… I kid you not.

    Watch out for these guys, they could easily screw the whole thing up in New York as well.

  • jake Wegmann

    Just to echo Nick: we have seen this movie before here in CA, and in fact it’s a multi-episode horror film with more sequels than the Freddy Krueger series. The worst part of all? There is no prospect on the horizon for us to get to the closing credits.

    It’s one of the saddest and most pathetic states of affairs one could possibly imagine. The result? We’ve been making progress on bike-friendly infrastructure at a small fraction of the rate (and for far more cost) that you all have been proceeding at in NYC.

    And sadly, we just can’t get the idea of eliminating (not expediting — eliminating) environmental review for environmentally/socially helpful projects on the radar screen as a priority for legislation at the state level. At least part of the reason is that a lot of otherwise progressive advocates don’t really feel in their bones how much of a burden environmental review is for worthwhile projects — how many of them go over-budget, get delayed, or scuttled altogether as a result. Although maybe they do now, now that SF spent three+ years essentially frozen out of implementing any roadway bike improvements whatsoever. The people from Copenhagen and Amsterdam must think that we’re totally insane to have such a dysfunctional system, and if so, they’re right.

    So, New York, whatever you do, don’t let these guys get away with this. Sounds like you’re on top of it.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The city got on top of this with the EIS manual many years ago, which accorded anything but a very large project a “negative declaration.” Thus, under the Bloomberg administration, half the city has been upzoned or downzoned without any EISes. They receive a “negative declaration” put out by the Department of City Planning based on limited criteria.

    Anti-environmentalists love using the EIS laws against policies that aid the environment — kind of in retaliation for all the hassles and costs that environmentalists have imposed unreasonably, and reasonably.

    To get is way, Oddo would have to over-ride the Environmental Review manual, which would require an EIS under state law. Then he would have to limit the environmental reviews to bike lanes, and exclude other street changes. Otherwise, no switch from EZ-Pass with gates to speed pass without an environmental review, for example. No new signal timing without an EIS, if it increases capacity. Etc.

    He probably doesn’t understand what he is saying. But since he got in the newspaper, he probably doesn’t care.

  • “He probably doesn’t understand what he is saying. But since he got in the newspaper, he probably doesn’t care.” Yup. That’s what politics is all about 🙂

  • Andrew

    I can imagine that Mr. Oddo wants to add environmental review not because he is concerned about the environment. It is likely (as one or more commenter has already pointed out) because he knows that the environmental process is a project killer that adds significantly to the cost and timeline of project delivery.

    I don’t think anyone wants to go to the point of doing environmental reviews for every restriping job out there. To do so would increase our taxes significantly for very little, if any, benefit to the environment.

  • Wanderer

    Often when cities put in bike lanes they reduce the number of auto travel lanes. Hold your applause, think about what this can do to bus operations. It can make them slower and less reliable and therefore less attractive to passengers. Former bus passengers driving their cars can partially negate the environmental good of bike lanes.

    I’m not necessarily in love with the formal environmental review process. But it seems like it might be the only way to get cities to take transit concerns seriously. Without it, cities often simply stonewall transit agencies, which are left to pick up the costs and operational disruptions (and occasionally safety problems). Sometimes two good things can be in conflict, and there need to be mechanisms to reconcile them.

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