Bush Orders Streamlined Transportation Project Reviews

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 19, 2002 (ENS) - President George W. Bush issued an executive order Wednesday that would speed up federal environmental studies of major transportation projects throughout the nation. The order was denounced by environmental groups, who said it represents a Bush administration trend toward weakening federal environmental protections in the name of streamlining regulations.

The "Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Project Reviews" executive order orders the Department of Transportation (DOT) to create a list of "high priority transportation infrastructure projects," and to add to the list in the future. Projects on this list, which may include airports, highways, bridges and tunnels, will get expedited federal reviews and permits.

The order also creates a new interagency task force that will "identify and promote policies that can effectively streamline the process required to provide approvals for transportation infrastructure projects, in compliance with applicable law, while maintaining safety, public health and environmental protection."


The Bush administration says streamlining environmental reviews will help reduce highway congestion and air pollution. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
"Too many transportation projects become mired for too long in the complex web of clearances required by federal and state law," said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta in a letter to lawmakers and other stakeholders detailing the new order. "This initiative is intended to make our transportation investments more efficient, helping to ease congestion and reduce pollution."

"By working in close concert with governors and transportation leaders, we hope to identify effective procedures for routinely expediting consideration of environmentally sound transportation projects nationwide," Mineta added. "Commonsense streamlining and responsible environmental stewardship motivate our effort in equal measure."

But environmental groups argued that the executive order is aimed primarily at increasing transportation development, and is likely to have negative impacts on environmental protections.

"We see several major problems with the executive order," said Deron Lovaas, who represents the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) program on smart growth.

"First, it grants the Department of Transportation, an agency that is not usually focused on environmental protection, the power to oversee environmental review of new roads, highways and other projects. Second, the order calls for speeding up these reviews," Lovaas noted.

The order runs counter to one of the nation's major environmental protection laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), argues the NRDC and other environmental groups. Under NEPA, federal agencies must examine the environmental effects of their actions, disclose these potential impacts to the public, and seek public comment on proposed projects.

President Bush's executive order would create a Cabinet level task force reporting to the President through the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The task force would seek to bypass "inefficient review procedures," such as those required by NEPA, for transportation projects deemed critical to the nation's infrastructure, such as highway widening projects and airport expansions.


It takes an average of 10 years to take a new airport from planning to opening, the Department of Transportation says. (Photo courtesy NASA)
The order came one day before scheduled hearings before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to review efforts to streamline NEPA reviews under the federal Transportation Equity Act. And next Monday marks the end of a public comment period on potential changes to NEPA, which are under review by a task force headed by the Council on Environmental Quality.

"The president's new executive order is a total surprise given that the administration supposedly is reviewing NEPA right now," said Lovaas. "But it is in keeping with the administration's campaign from day one to undermine the laws that protect our environment and public health."

The NRDC is among the conservation groups campaigning to maintain the environmental protections that NEPA has afforded for more than 30 years. In recent weeks, the Bush administration has proposed exempting a number of federal activities from environmental review, including forest fire management projects and most Navy activities in U.S. and international waters.

"From logging on national forests to off shore oil drilling to highway projects, the Bush administration has proposed to remove federal activities with serious environmental consequences from NEPA's requirements," said Sharon Buccino, senior attorney in NRDC's land program.

In an effort to speed up the pace of transportation projects, highway proponents have blamed the environmental review process for delays and have suggested restricting opportunities for public participation and shortened review deadlines for participating federal agencies.

But a recent assessment by the Federal Highway Administration found that about 62 percent of project delays are due to a lack of funding, local opposition, or project complexity - not environmental reviews.

"NEPA is what keeps pavement our remaining fragile watersheds and wildlife habitat," added Lovaas.


New bridge projects can be delayed for years by environmental reviews. (Photo courtesy San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau)
Still, several members of Congress have introduced legislation that would curtail the public's right to contest transportation plans, and allow construction to proceed without consideration of more environmentally sustainable alternatives, such as mass transit projects.

The NRDC charges that the order ignores other, better means of meeting the nation's transportation needs, and to improve the efficiency of the review process for transportation projects.

"Creating short cuts to more airport construction won't solve the nation's chronic aviation delays, but it will create more noise pollution, air pollution and groundwater pollution in the communities that surround large airports in every metropolitan area," noted Richard Kassel, a senior attorney in NRDC's air and energy program.

Better and earlier public involvement in project reviews and more resources for overworked review agencies would do a better job of expediting transportation projects than removing environmental protections, the NRDC says. The group advocates for transportation planning that considers impacts to protected resources such as public parks, wildlife habitat, historic sites and scenic areas, and provides better coordination between affected communities and government agencies.

The executive order, "Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Project Reviews, is available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/