Jumping through hoops

Changing NEPA may be first step in revising environmental review process

Bill Wilson Editor in Chief [email protected] / July 18, 2005

My wife has informed me that I need to put together all Christmas toys at least one week before Santa comes to town. We don’t even have any children yet. I guess what clued her in was the trauma I have suffered for the past three weeks.
I couldn’t settle for your standard basketball hoop. No, I had to get the one where you could adjust the height and flexibility of the rim. This way, when I go up for my gorilla dunk the backboard won’t shatter all over my driveway.

I also couldn’t settle for taking the long, step-by-step, 20-page route of assembling this backyard bad boy. No, I was impatient. I mean, come on, how hard can it be to connect a long pole to a wide base and then connect the actual hoop to the long pole?

Let’s put it this way: I had an easier time taking my ACTs. Every time I thought I was two steps ahead, I noticed I forgot a part and had to take those two steps back and reassemble one thing or another. The knockout blow to my machoism came when I propped the entire unit up and saw the backboard portion sag a couple of feet.

There is nothing more frustrating than thinking you’ve completed the task, then finding out there is more to be done. Frehner Construction Inc. knows what I’m talking about. Their fancy basketball hoop is still sitting in parts in the Las Vegas area. Most of you know about the U.S. 95 transportation improvement project. The contractor thought all the bases were covered, then came a stopper known as the Sierra Club. The environmental protest group claimed that under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) failed to consider alternatives to widening U.S. 95 from six to 10 lanes and that the project’s 1999 Environmental Impact Statement was inadequate. Two years later a U.S. District Court gave FHWA the thumbs up to proceed with the project. The Sierra Club, however, reached for the emergency brake, filing an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2004. The move worked, and little has been done with the U.S. 95 project since.

Last month, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) voiced concerns about NEPA and the effect it has had on U.S. 95 at a U.S. House of Representatives Resources Committee Task Force in Show Low, Ariz. Speaking on behalf of ARTBA, Frehner Construction’s Kathleen Craft urged the committee to consider redefining NEPA.

To strengthen Craft’s appearance, ARTBA offered a few recommendations to improve NEPA, including:

  • Establish a time limit on project-related NEPA lawsuits so there is more certainty in the transportation planning process;
  • Limit NEPA litigation to those issues that have been fully raised and discussed during the public comment period. ARTBA believes this will help ensure that litigation over projects is a last resort and is not a first stop for opponents of a transportation project; and
  • Give appropriate consideration to the many benefits of transportation improvements as well as the negative environmental impacts of not initiating such projects.

The original intent of NEPA, signed into law in 1969, was to provide the public with an active role in minimizing the environmental impacts that result from federal activities. The U.S. 95 project held a number of public forums, and alterations were made, but it didn’t make a bit of difference. The Sierra Club was still able to twist the law in its favor.

There is a provision in the House highway bill which sets a 90-day limit for NEPA lawsuits. It would be nice if there were additional language prohibiting any group from filing a lawsuit just to stop a transportation project, as was the case in Las Vegas.

Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a generation to change anything dealing with the environment, just look at the Clean Air Act. At the very least, I think the industry has a promising start. My basketball hoop is up and functional. You can finish anything you put your mind to.

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