And Some MAP-21 Bad News

Post date: Jul 20, 2012 3:07:05 AM

Many people have already noted this clinker – under Section 1316 of the new Reauthorization bill all highway projects built within the existing right-of-way lines are classified as Categorical Exclusions under NEPA and can’t be held to the higher requirements of Environmental Assessments or Environmental Impact Statements.

Why is this important? Presumably the issue is highway widening projects – adding new lanes – within the existing ROW. DOTs and other agencies who want to widen highways look to the “inside” approach where they can, because adding lanes on the inside doesn’t require ROW acquisition and has fewer environmental impacts than adding lanes on the outside, and is therefore much faster and cheaper. But apparently some folks have wanted to make that process even faster and cheaper by shortcutting the NEPA process.

Some points to consider here:

First, the main impact of highway widening projects on the natural environment usually has very little to do with trout streams and bog turtle habitats, although these are the sort of issues that get the most attention. The main impact is the stimulus to sprawl settlement patterns and the resultant costs to both natural and built systems. And our present NEPA process underrates those impacts.

Second, a “categorical exclusion” isn’t really what the name implies. Typically, a CE may require 6 months of technical studies and preparation of a significant document to justify that status. It isn’t necessarily a free pass.

I’m not sure where this leaves us, and we will have to see how the process plays out. In a sensible system, we should be adding capacity to the system within comprehensive regional plans – “blueprint” plans – that link settlement patterns, transportation networks, and natural systems to maximize benefits to all three. Still work to be done there.