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Highway Boondoggles Deserve Scrutiny - But A NEPA Rollback Could Leave Us in the Dark

As the Trump Administration presses forward in its attempts to gut the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, much has been written about the negative environmental impacts that would follow. As Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, put it, “For the past 50 years, NEPA has been an essential part of the public process, providing critical oversight that the federal government relies on to fully understand the potential implications of projects that can harm people’s health and the environment.”

At stake is NEPA’s requirement that major federal projects like highways, pipelines or power plants provide an “environmental impact statement” (EIS) assessing project consequences. Under the new proposal, a project's EIS would no longer have to consider climate impacts, and would be easier to elude altogether. 

But it’s worth remembering that environmental impact statements aren’t just important for environmental information. They are frequently the best source of information about new infrastructure projects, period - and weakening them will severely hinder the public’s ability to evaluate big new expenditures of taxpayer dollars on a wide variety of fronts.

I know this because, in drafting recent editions of our Highway Boondoggles series, I have leaned heavily on NEPA-mandated EIS documents. And I’ve found that for projects not subject to NEPA, research is far harder, and critical information about costs and benefits can be nonexistent.

This doesn’t just pertain to environmental impacts. In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, which now requires environmental impact statements to go beyond traditional environmental issues like emissions and land use to cover an array of community impacts.

Here’s just one example. In the last Highway Boondoggles report, we covered the $7+ billion North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which we described as a project that would “harm communities, displace residents and destroy businesses,” all while “sucking billions of dollars away from important transportation priorities.” That project’s EIS was invaluable for understanding these effects. My reading of the document turned up the following:

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. 
  • The project would require right-of-way that would “displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.” It would also “result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion.”  
  • The project would also displace bus stops, and therefore "affect people that do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

This project is, unfortunately, still lurching its way forward. But information from the EIS - along with NEPA’s mandatory public comment period - has allowed residents to raise tough questions and hold public officials to task. The EIS has also served as the source for local media coverage to make project impacts even more widely known. With a weakened NEPA, it’s not clear how much of this pushback would be possible.

The information available through NEPA is a critical tool that gives community-members and taxpayers the ability to push back against projects that will do harm - and to fight for projects that will make us healthier and happier. Weakening NEPA will make all of that so much harder to do. Without the right information, we’re left in the dark.

Photo: The North Houston Highway Improvement Project could have devastating community impacts - but we only know about them because of the project's environmental impact statement. Credit: TxDOT via YouTube.