SAFETEA-LU's Environmental Streamlining: Missing Opportunities for Meaningful Reform

Musselman, Jenna
August 2006
Ecology Law Quarterly;2006, Vol. 33 Issue 3, p825
Academic Journal
On August 10, 2005, Congress passed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the largest public works bill in U.S. history. SAFETEA-LU provides almost $300 billion to fund six years of highway and public transit projects sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and it includes the planning, technological, environmental, and safety policy goals for the U.S. transportation system. SAFETEA-LU also represents the successful culmination of the push to "streamline" the environmental review process for transportation projects. "Streamlining" supporters claim the new procedures will speed the often-lengthy time from project initiation to project completion without compromising environmental protection. While some of the streamlining changes enacted in SAFETEA-LU may improve efficiency while still protecting the environment, this Comment argues that most of the changes will either sacrifice the environment and public participation to move projects faster, or fail to improve timeframes and environmental protection by ignoring the true reasons for delay. Streamlining impacts the procedures transportation agencies use to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). which requires all federal agencies to document the environmental impacts of their projects, and section 4(f), a law specific to transportation agencies for protection of historic sites and parklands. Changes that create new limits on judicial review, redefine how transportation agencies interact with natural resource agencies, and limit the involvement of the public in determining project alternatives all undercut the goals of environmental protection. Overall. the streamlining in SAFETEA-LU reflects the largely negative attitude toward environmental review prevalent among project developers, who feel that the NEPA and section 4(f) review processes add little to a project. This stance ignores the positive effects environmental review can provide, such as increased public support and a more environmentally-sensitive project. SAFETEA-LU was an opportunity for Congress to mandate streamlining changes to environmental review that would make environmental review more meaningful for project developers and more beneficial for communities. Techniques such as context sensitive solutions, adaptive management, and environmental management systems all have the potential to improve the process from both a development and an environmental perspective, Integrating planning and environmental review would address potential areas of conflict early in the processes, allowing projects to move forward with less opposition and with more built-in environmental mitigation. While Congress missed the chance to advance these procedures in SAFETEA-LU, some transportation agencies have already begun to implement them. This Comment concludes by advocating that future streamlining efforts focus on making environmental review a useful instrument for both developers and the public: a tool that protects the environment without causing unnecessary delays.


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