As transit agencies look to expand and grow, one of the biggest obstacles is seemingly the environmental review process. Federal and state governments mandate lengthy and costly review processes that are supposed to find no impact. Never mind that the purpose of a project could be, say, a brand new subway line designed to improve environmental conditions; these requirements stand.
Take, for example, the Second Ave. Subway. After what was then 70 years of planning and some aborted construction efforts, the MTA still had to prepare a scoping document, a draft environmental impact statement, a supplemental statement and a final environmental impact statement before the groundbreaking. When the agency proposed shifting some entrances at 72nd and 86th Sts., the agency had to prepare yet another document to show no impact. As these documents are now over a decade old in certain cases, the MTA may have to do some of this all over again for future phases of the subway construction project.
Simple subway extensions aren’t the only projects suffering under the onus of environmental review. In The Times today, while coverage of the snow dominates headlines, Sam Roberts tackles the problem of environmental review in the context of the Bayonne Bridge project. This should be a simple effort to raise a bridge in its existing footprint to allow larger container boats into the New York Harbor, but the review process has been a disaster. Roberts writes of the history of the project after it was proposed in 2009:
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey first spent more than six months importuning various federal offices to serve as the lead agency for an environmental review. The law is vague about which agency is responsible. The Coast Guard finally agreed.
Since then, the Port Authority’s “fast-track” approach to a project that will not alter the bridge’s footprint has generated more than 5,000 pages of federally mandated archaeological, traffic, fish habitat, soil, pollution and economic reports that have cost over $2 million. A historical survey of every building within two miles of each end of the bridge alone cost $600,000 — even though none would be affected by the project.
After four years of work, the environmental assessment was issued in May and took into consideration comments from 307 organizations or individuals. The report invoked 207 acronyms, including M.B.T.A. (Migratory Bird Treaty Act) and N.L.R. (No Longer Regulated). Fifty-five federal, state and local agencies were consulted and 47 permits were required from 19 of them. Fifty Indian tribes from as far away as Oklahoma were invited to weigh in on whether the project impinged on native ground that touches the steel-arch bridge’s foundation.
That’s just the beginning as Roberts airs out a full array of criticism against environmental review laws. “Environmental review has evolved into an academic exercise like a game of who can find the most complications,” Philip K. Howard, a lawyer concerned with onerous government regulations, said. “The Balkanization of authority among different agencies and levels of government creates a dynamic of buck-passing.”
Meanwhile, as the bridge is being raised to increase port capacity and reduce the number of ships needed to bring in the same amount of cargo, New Jersey groups believe that more containers will lead to more trucks carting more goods to their final destinations. Lawsuits are ongoing, but Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye seems fed up with it all. “We’re not proposing to build a nuclear plant on a pristine mountain lake,” he said to The Times. “We’re not building a bridge, we’re not knocking a bridge down, we don’t think there’ll be any increase in vehicular traffic. The environmental impact is more energy-efficient ships. They will emit less schmutz per container and per pair of Nikes.”
So what’s the solution? On the one hand, the review process is important in that it requires agencies to set forth detailed descriptions of their plans, and it forces government entities to involve the community to a certain degree in planning. But it’s an absurd process that needs to be streamlined and overhauled. The Bayonne Bridge and Second Ave. Subway are just two in a long list of voluminous environmental reviews that drive up costs and slow down construction. If enough agency heads sound off, as Foye did, maybe things can begin to change.