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Posts from the "Environmental Review" Category

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New Layer of Red Tape From FHWA Threatens to Delay NYC Bike Projects

The Federal Highway Administration is seeking to impose a new layer of bureaucratic review on New York City bike projects, which could significantly delay the implementation of street redesigns that have proven to reduce traffic injuries and deaths.

The Federal Highway Administration wants to impose a level of bureaucratic review that could delay projects like the Kent Avenue bike lane by one to two years. Photo: NYC DOT

According to a source in city government, FHWA wants the New York State DOT to review each individual NYC bike project design before releasing federal funds for implementation. This would be a major departure from the existing practice in which the state DOT approves a package of bike projects for funding simultaneously, without performing design reviews of each one. If the state DOT starts reviewing every single NYC bike project going forward, it could dramatically slow down the addition of new bike lanes, delaying each by up to two years, the city official said.

Currently, NYC DOT pays for many of its bike projects using funds from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program. These CMAQ grants have laid the foundation for the city’s bike network expansion over the past six years. The federal grants first pass through the state DOT, which then releases the funds to the city.

According to the state DOT, the state has to review federally-funded projects classified as capital construction. NYC bikeways are implemented primarily through contracts that involve striping but not capital construction, and the state DOT confirmed that for years most bike lanes have been built without being classified as “construction projects.” FHWA now wants to reclassify bike lanes, triggering the more time-consuming review procedure.

While the impetus to reclassify bike lanes appears to have originated with state DOT sometime earlier this year, the agency has since backed away from the idea. The feds remain intent on pursuing the much more time-consuming process, however, with FHWA saying it is applying review protocols established by the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act.

The city official says the review procedure is flexible, and there is no need to reclassify bike lanes. The current, streamlined review procedure has led to the implementation of projects all over the city with demonstrable safety benefits, routinely lowering the rate of traffic injuries by more than 25 percent [PDF].

Street safety advocates are alarmed at the prospect of a much lengthier bureaucratic review for New York City bike improvements. “The current process is working well, and has dramatically improved safety for bikers, pedestrians and motorists alike,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “Such onerous red tape would add cost and delay and would effectively put lives in jeopardy while making it virtually impossible for Mayor-elect de Blasio to achieve his goal of increasing bicycling and reducing fatalities and injuries.”

The American transportation agency with the most extensive track record of installing bike lanes on urban streets is NYC DOT, and the safety record of the agency’s bike projects is unequivocally positive. One reason that New York City has been able to deploy bike projects as quickly as it has is the lack of interference from agencies higher up the funding pyramid. Other cities haven’t been so fortunate.

FHWA is seeking to impose needless oversight that will tie up sustainable transportation projects in the name of “environmental review” — how perverse is that?

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Vitter Seeks to Cut Environmental Reviews for Massive Road Projects

Bridges are getting a lot of attention as senators add their two cents to the upper chamber’s transportation budget proposal for next year. The Senate transportation appropriations bill includes $500 million for “bridges in critical corridors” (BRICC), designed as a response to the recent bridge collapse along I-5 in Washington state — home of Senator Patty Murray, the chair of the Transportation and HUD Appropriations Committee. And in the amendment process, Republican senators have been lining up to mold the BRICC program to their liking.

Sen. David Vitter's amendment would further weaken environmental protections. Photo: Wikipedia

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) got an amendment inserted that would prioritize spending that money on functionally obsolete or structurally deficient bridges. And Rand Paul loves the new BRICC program so much he wants to raid the very tiny, very popular Transportation Alternatives program to prop it up.

Both Paul’s and Portman’s amendments are aimed at the same thing: widening the Brent Spence bridge between their two states. The project is so high-profile that President Obama stood under the bridge to make his infrastructure push in 2011. While the Brent Spence Bridge is “functional obsolete” — in other words, congested — it is not structurally deficient. In fact, the bridge is perfectly safe. As of its last inspection in 2005, it got good ratings for deck condition, superstructure condition, and substructure condition.

Paul and Portman aren’t the only Republicans looking to put their imprint on BRICC. Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe wants to make sure at least 20 percent of that money goes to rural areas. And Louisiana’s David Vitter is pushing to waive environmental reviews for any project funded by BRICC.

Vitter’s amendment [PDF] would make all BRICC projects eligible for a “categorical exclusion” from the requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act. That means they wouldn’t have to undergo scrutiny of their environmental and community impacts or any evaluation of alternatives.

If all bridge projects under BRICC were going to replace bridges with their exact replica, with no changes, then sure, NEPA reviews might be superfluous. But the amendment would exempt projects as massive as New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge replacement — which will nearly double the width of the existing bridge without adding any dedicated transit component – from environmental review.

And BRICC projects aren’t necessarily repair or replacement projects — they can be brand-new construction on Federal-aid highways.

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Denise Richardson on Highway Tolls, the TZB, and Why Projects Cost So Much

General Contractors Association Managing Director Denise Richardson. Photo: GCA

Earlier this week Streetsblog sat down with General Contractors Association Managing Director Denise Richardson for a wide-ranging discussion on the financial state of New York’s transportation systems. In the first installment of the interview, we discussed the MTA’s capital program, which is moving forward with important repair work but saddling transit riders with huge amounts of debt, and the inability of the federal government to pass a new transportation bill.

In the second part of our conversation, we discussed New York’s highway system, which consumes hundreds of millions of dollars in general taxes a year, and Governor Cuomo’s enigmatic New York Works Fund. We also touched on why construction costs are high and always seem to get higher, and the timing of transit construction on the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement.

Noah Kazis: I want to ask about the New York Works plan. To start off, what is the New York Works plan, in your mind?

Denise Richardson: Well I know what I’ve read in the papers.

If you look at New York’s history, we are a state that developed around our infrastructure. New York, from colonial times, was a business city, it focused on trade. The Erie Canal, the railroads, the road system. We are an infrastructure state, even though we pretend not to be. The governor said, “Where do we stack up nationally, in terms of infrastructure?” And that was not a very good picture at all. In a state that needs to create jobs, the linkage was obvious. And I think it’s a great program.

“We have to stop treating the public like idiots. If we’re going to do some major public works project, we should tell the public what it’s really going to cost.”

My concern about it is obviously funding. The governor has made the statement that he doesn’t want to raise taxes. I think that to make New York Works a permanent part of the infrastructure funding strategy, there needs to be real money there. His discussions about tapping pension fund investments –pension funds are seen as a source of easy money, but there are a lot of issues associated with pension fund investments. As a trustee on some pension funds, I can tell you that it’s not as easy as it sounds. There needs to be a very stable rate of return, tied to very definite revenues, and that’s not saying, “The state guarantees to pay.” From what revenue source?

But I think the fact that the governor announced that Felix Rohatyn is going to head it up — everyone living in New York City, if they don’t know who he is, should learn, since he was instrumental in saving the city — I think the fact that he has once again come to the fore gives us a level of confidence that it will be a stable, funded program.

NK: To confirm, there haven’t been any sort of real monies attached to the New York Works yet?

DR: Not that I’ve seen. Hopefully, as the governor puts the team together, I’m sure that the funding pieces will fall into place.

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Advocates: Tappan Zee Plans Violate State, Federal Environmental Laws

The draft environmental impact statement for the Tappan Zee Bridge revealed that the new bridge would be twice as wide as the existing span. But the DEIS left so many questions unanswered that it may violate state and federal law.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s rushed plans for a transit-free Tappan Zee Bridge are shortsighted and increasingly unpopular. They may also be illegal.

Under federal and state law, the construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge can’t proceed without going through environmental review. The state must analyze and then disclose the impact the project will have on surrounding communities; decision makers and the public alike have a right to be fully informed about the project.

“The DEIS is practically and legally deficient and contrary to the requirements of NEPA and SEQRA”

In official comments submitted Friday, some of the state’s top environmental and transportation organizations assert that the Cuomo administration’s draft environmental impact statement fails to disclose the required information. Mandatory analyses are either absent or entirely cursory, the groups allege. Clearly, the shadow of a lawsuit now hangs over the Tappan Zee Bridge project.

“The DEIS is practically and legally deficient and contrary to the requirements of NEPA and SEQRA,” wrote the conservation group Riverkeeper, referring to the federal and state environmental review laws, respectively, in comments that resembled a legal brief [PDF].

Comments submitted jointly by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Natural Resources Defense Council, NYPIRG, Transportation Alternatives and Good Jobs New York concurred [PDF]. At three separate points, the organizations repeat this phrase: “Without more analysis, the project cannot meet the environmental review requirements.”

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Are Environmental Reviews to Blame for Infrastructure Project Delays?

Highway projects can take 10 to 15 years from planning through construction. The length of the process leads to cost overruns, some due to inflation, some from having to pay engineers and contractors for years on end. No matter how you feel about the worthiness of road capacity expansion, if a project gets built it doesn’t do anybody any good to have that project cost twice what it ought to because of delays. Plus, reducing delays is going to be a key element in upcoming debates over cost-effectiveness in the transportation sector.

Road-builder Thomas Margro told Congress that the completion of SR 241 has been held up for 15 years due to environmental reviews. Photo: craiginvegas/flickr

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) has pressed the issue, insisting that the industry, together with government, must find ways to streamline the process to save money. He’s hinted that environmental reviews might, at times, be too burdensome.

Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) says U.S. projects take two to three times longer to get off the ground than other developed countries, and he chaired a Transportation Committee hearing today on project delivery delays.

Lawmakers and witnesses from transportation companies focused on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as a cause of the delays. NEPA was enacted in 1970 and in many ways still serves as the foundation for environmental review policies throughout the nation.

Thomas Margro, CEO of Transportation Corridor Agencies, which builds toll roads in California, testified, “Our agency completed the first 51 miles of our planned 67 [mile] toll road system in 12 years. However, we have spent the last 15 years trying to accomplish and finish the last 16 miles, as it has been mired in the federal environmental review process.”

The first stage, to develop a “Purpose and Need” statement and the “Alternatives” for initial evaluation, took four years to accomplish, according to Margro. (Note: his written testimony says it took 28 months.) The second stage, preparing technical studies and environmental measures, he says, took six years.

In the end, the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed that the SR 241 project “would not likely adversely affect endangered or threatened fish species” but at the first hint of controversy, they backtracked. Margro says the process has failed them.

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Oddo: Bike Lanes Were Just to Grab Attention for Loosening Enviro Review

James Oddo

City Council Minority Leader James Oddo. Photo: SI Advance

City Council Minority Leader James Oddo has a surprising message for Streetsblog and its commenters: “Thank you.”

We didn’t think too highly of Oddo’s proposal to require environmental review for bike lanes. And experts said it would throw an unnecessary road block in front of expanding the bike network, making the projects exceedingly slow and expensive without any countervailing benefit.

But in a phone call with Streetsblog, Oddo said that story was exactly what he wanted to see. “I used you guys,” he crowed. “I knew when I touched the third rail of bike lanes, it would get noticed. The aim of my letter to the Deputy Mayor and the DOT Commissioner wasn’t bike lanes. It was the city’s environmental review process.”

He hurried to say that he didn’t have any problems with bike lanes — but his explanation will be cold comfort to cyclists who can no longer ride on the Father Capodanno Boulevard bike lane in his own district. “This commissioner and this department, they can build all the bike lanes they want,” he said. “As long as I get drivable roads in my borough, that’s my concern. I can’t help the fact that Staten Islanders are addicted to automobiles because the government hasn’t given us mass transit.”

Oddo called the environmental review process “arbitrary, pointless, and a job killer.” He said his ultimate goal was to raise attention to this white paper by Manhattan Institute fellow Hope Cohen, which outlines an agenda to reform environmental review.

To what end does Oddo want to loosen the city’s enviro review procedures? The Staten Island Advance reports today that he wants road widenings to be sped through the process — projects that will actually induce more traffic and cause more pollution. The Manhattan Institute paper does not address the appropriateness of environmental review for specific types of transportation projects, like road widenings.

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

James Oddo

City Council Minority Leader James Oddo. Photo: 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.

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Council Mem James Oddo: Require Enviro Review for All New Bike Lanes

Last week’s release of “before” and “after” stats on the Prospect Park West bike lane tells an increasingly familiar story: A DOT redesign has increased cycling while making the street safer for pedestrians and drivers. Since safer streets make it easier for New Yorkers to get around without a car, and since biking and walking are emissions-free modes, it’s safe to say that this is good news for the environment.

James Oddo

Staten Island Republican James Oddo. Photo: SI Advance

Well, City Council Member James Oddo begs to differ.

The Post reports that Oddo and fellow Staten Island rep Vincent Ignizio want to require time-consuming environmental reviews for future NYC bike projects:

Staten Island Councilman James Oddo, the Republican minority leader, said plans for new bike lanes should undergo the city’s lengthy environmental-assessment process, or the city should allow other, more minor traffic changes to bypass the review.

Oddo and Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-SI) penned a letter last week demanding an explanation from Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, an avid cyclist and bike-lane proponent, of why the lanes don’t require the scrutiny.

“The creation of bike lanes and the removal of vehicle travel lanes represent a major reordering of Department of Transportation priorities that may affect the environment and appear to qualify” for a formal environmental review, the letter reads.

Oddo was part of the team that successfully lobbied to kill the Father Capodanno bike lane late last year. The city erased that decades-old cycling route — in what you might call a “major reordering” of the street — without any public hearing or environmental review. Now, under the guise of environmental review, Oddo and Ignizio want to throw more monkey wrenches at bike projects.

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Land Use Process Likely Safe in Charter Revision, But Major Issues Simmer

steviejpg_ca5c10d14bc0633a_large.jpgFormer Staten Island Council Member Stephen Fiala defends the role of borough presidents in land use decision-making. Image: SI Advance.
The city's Charter Revision Commission held its fifth issue forum last night, discussing the city's complex land use process. Based on the commentary of a panel of expert witnesses, a major revision of the city's core land use process, ULURP, looks unlikely this year. But that doesn't mean that there isn't an appetite for change. Heated discussions about the role of community boards and borough presidents, comprehensive and community-based planning and the need to reform environmental review punctuated the evening.

The city's official position, it appears, is that land use doesn't need reform this year. David Karnovsky, general counsel for the Department of City Planning, used his testimony to explain the origins and benefits of ULURP, praising it for being predictable and appropriately balancing local and city-wide interests. "It is strong and it is robust," said Karnovsky. At no point did he speak well of a proposal to revise the land use sections of the charter.

Karnovsky's testimony echoed that of City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, who according to the Observer, has called for leaving ULURP alone in this charter revision. "I think we definitely should make sure we don't mess with things that aren't broken," Burden was reported as saying. Since the Charter Revision Commission is controlled by mayoral appointees, this unified position from the Department of City Planning suggests that land use may not make it onto the ballot this year.

But if the charter commission does decide to tackle land use, or if it comes up again next year, last night's forum provided a good overview of the hot issues. 

Debate over the proper role of borough presidents and community boards dominated the evening. Read more...
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New GOP Bill Would Bar Enviro Reviews From Considering Climate

Republicans on the Senate environment committee, who months ago began criticizing the Obama administration for evaluating federally funded infrastructure projects for their impact on climate change, today introduced legislation that would bar the White House from making climate a factor in environmental reviews.

john_barrasso_john_thune_2009_9_30_16_10_56.jpgSen. John Barrasso (R-WY), one of the new NEPA bill's sponsors, holds up a copy of the Senate climate legislation. (Photo: AP)
The GOP senators said their bill was aimed at ensuring the government could not delay new road and power-plant construction to gauge its climate impacts under the precepts of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). That 40-year-old statute that requires local planners to conduct reviews of any transport project that could significantly impact the health of surrounding areas.

"As it stands, NEPA is subject to frequent abuse by radical environmentalists who want to use litigation to impose their agenda on federal agencies," Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), one of the measure's sponsors, said in a statement. "Our bill seeks to prevent that abuse."

The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), responding to a petition from green groups, issued draft guidance in February that asked agencies to evaluate the climate impacts of new projects estimated to increase emissions by 25,000 metric tons or more of CO2 -- the same level that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used for its rule on mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas production.

As the EPA noted in its explanation of the 25,000 metric ton threshold, such a level of emissions would be equivalent to 4,600 new passenger cars or the energy use of 2,3000 new homes.

The CEQ's guidance is not set to become final until after a period of public comment ends next month.