Preserve Public Input in Decisionmaking: Oppose Measures that Would Undermine Environmental Policy
Advocacy Letter - 06/20/12
Source: The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Recipient: Surface Transportation Reauthorization Conferees
Dear Surface Transportation Reauthorization Conferees:
On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the undersigned organizations, we urge you to oppose and remove measures in H.R. 4348 that would undermine the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the public participation process from any final transportation bill. These provisions would have the severe impact of shutting out nearly all stakeholders—including low-income residents and communities of color, people with disabilities, older populations, landowners, business owners, and local governments—from transportation project decisions affecting the health, economy, and environment of their local communities. We urge you to eliminate provisions that stifle community input in the transportation planning process.
These provisions would have an acute impact on low-income residents, communities of color, people with disabilities, and older populations because they are greatly affected by decisions on community development, public transit, and safety. These communities often suffer the environmental impacts of transportation routes, transportation distribution, limited access to job markets, or transportation options that are unsafe. Failure to gather input from these communities could result in transportation projects that are not fully accessible or decisions that have negative health impacts on communities where infrastructure development occurs.
Enacted in 1969 with overwhelming bipartisan support, NEPA has two simple aims: one, to assess and disclose the environmental, health, and economic impacts before a federal action is taken; and two, to involve the public in decisions impacting their communities. Nearly every report on transportation project delay confirms that the primary causes of delay “are outside the NEPA process,” thus drawing into question what, if any, benefit comes from shielding decisions from public input and scrutiny. In fact, the most commonly identified causes of delay are unrelated to NEPA review. Rather, lack of funding, securing community consensus, and accommodating affected residents and businesses, including utility companies and railroads, account for the vast majority of project delays.
Although often referred to as “streamlining” measures, the measures in H.R. 4348 are in essence, “steamrolling” provisions that would also prevent the consideration of more efficient, cost effective, and less harmful project alternatives. These provisions include: completely waiving the application of NEPA for certain projects; creating short, arbitrary timelines for environmental review; and severely limiting judicial review. While we agree that transportation project delivery needs to move as efficiently as possible, it is important that in our eagerness to facilitate project development, we do not sacrifice the democratic tool available to communities that ensures full and fair participation in the decision making process of the federal government.
Moreover, NEPA ensures that the public and decision makers are informed of reasonable alternatives that would avoid or minimize adverse impacts, including inefficient and expensive project design. For example, thanks to public participation from citizen committees, the Colorado Department of Transportation modified the initial plans for the I-70 mountain corridor expansion. The final highway decision resulted in tunnels and other design techniques to reduce noise, improve safety, preserve the natural environment, include rest stops, and create bike/jogging trails and boat access. Similarly, as a result of NEPA review that required the examination of different alternatives, the final highway project alternative in Michigan’s US-23 expansion project, responded to local residents’ concerns and included passing and turn lanes, which not only avoided destroying wetlands, wildlife habitat, and forest land, but also saved 1.5 billion dollars.
Projects such as these illustrate that NEPA is a bridge, not a roadblock, to transportation project delivery. NEPA’s common-sense approach is to “look before you leap” and engage in forward looking planning by seeking public input and consensus upfront to avoid potential delays and unnecessary costs later. As Congress prepares to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars for much needed transportation projects, it is imperative that NEPA’s guarantees of public participation and fully-informed government decisionmaking are protected.
In order to avoid having nearly all stakeholders—including low-income communities, communities of color, people with disabilities, older populations, landowners, and business owners—bear a disproportionate burden and cost of transportation projects in which they have no voice, we strongly urge you to oppose and remove all measures undermining NEPA and the public participation process from the final transportation bill. Please contact Lexer Quamie, Counsel at (202) 466-3648 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Nancy Zirkin at (202) 263-2880 or email@example.com, if you have any questions. Thank you for your consideration.
Alliance for Biking & Walking
Alternatives for Community & Environment, Massachusetts
American Public Health Association
Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living, APRIL
Bus Riders Union, California
Chainbreaker Collective, New Mexico
The City Project
Coalition for a Livable Future
Commute-Pratt Center for Community Development
East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, California
Environmental Justice in Transportation Project at Morgan State University
Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, California
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Milwaukee Transit Riders Union, Wisconsin
National Association of County and City Health Officials
National Black Justice Coalition
National Council of La Raza
The National Council on Independent Living
Northern Alaska Environmental Center
Organizing People Activating Leaders-OPAL, Oregon
Partnership for Southern Equity, Georgia
Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Public Advocates Inc., California
Sacramento Housing Alliance, California
Transit Riders for Public Transportation
Transportation Equity Network
Transportation for America
UPROSE, New York
Upstream Public Health, Oregon
Urban Habitat, California
WEACT for Environmental Justice, New York
Willamette Pedestrian Coalition, Oregon
 Congressional Research Service, Accelerating Highway and Transit Project Delivery: Issues and Options for Congress 1 (Aug. 3, 2011), available at http://www.aashtojournal.org/Documents/August2011/CRSinfrastructure.pdf.