Success Stories

A Tale of Two Projects: I-94 and the Central Corridor Light Rail

Supported by the booming railway industry and local businesses, Rondo Avenue – named for Joseph Rondeau, moved there in the late 1850s from a site close to Fort Snelling, where he had faced discrimination due to his wife’s mixed white and indigenous heritage – was the heart of St. Paul’s largest African American neighborhood.

By the 1930s, nearly half of St. Paul’s black population lived in Rondo, and the neighborhood was home to integrated schools such as Central High School, Maxfield Elementary School, and parochial schools, created a relatively high level of education and literacy among minority residents.

That all came crashing down after President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956, sending funds for highway construction to municipalities across the country. The Federal-Aid Highway Act had authorized the secretary of commerce “to acquire, enter upon, and take possession of such lands or interest in lands by purchase, donation, condemnation, or otherwise” if states requested the federal government’s assistance in arranging rights-of-way planned highways.

First conceived of following World War I to connect St. Paul with Minneapolis, the planned route for Interstate 94 (I-94) cut directly through the middle of Rondo.

Shortly before construction began, local leaders African American community created the Rondo-St. Anthony Improvement Association to fight against the highway plan, but without modern laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to ensure community engagement and potentially identify alternative highway routes, the group’s options were limited.

Their advocacy was successful in achieving a depressed (below-grade) construction of I-94, but the route still split the Rondo neighborhood and forced the evacuation and relocation of hundreds of people and businesses. In total, some 650 families saw their houses bulldozed to make way for I-94. One in every eight African Americans in St. Paul lost a home to I-94. Nearly 100 mostly black-owned businesses were forced to close. Many never re-opened.

In 2015, both the mayor of St. Paul and the head of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Charlie Zelle, formally apologized to the community for the original construction of I-94. “We would never, we could never, build that kind of atrocity today,” Zelle said.

One of the reasons I-94 could not be built in the same way today—scattering hundreds of families and destroying a neighborhood—is because of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Signed into law in 1970, NEPA requires government agencies to engage in a review process intended to discover any significant environmental and public health impacts before a decision is made. We teach our children to “look before you leap.” NEPA simply and sensibly requires our government to do the same.

A key component of this NEPA review process are mandated public comment periods, which often provide the only outlet for citizens to weigh in and voice their concerns about a project’s impact on their community.

The importance of NEPA and its public comment process to ensuring major infrastructure projects are built in line with the interests of local communities

The Twin Cities’ planning process for the new Metro Green Line, which was developed in the mid-2000s and required NEPA review, offers a firsthand view as to how the NEPA process works.

After Minneapolis-St. Paul released the initial plans for the new Metro Green Line in 2008, concerns were raised that the 11-mile route would stop only once per mile in predominantly African-American neighborhoods compared with once every quarter-mile in downtown Minneapolis.

As Nathaniel Khaliq, who was president of the St. Paul NAACP at the time stated, the Green Line “was really built to help folks on the eastern end and western end of St. Paul to get to their sports games and activities.”

Activists organized the “Stops For Us” campaign to push for three more stops in poorer neighborhoods in St. Paul. The victory came in 2010 when U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced an adjustment in the federal funding formula designed to make it more inclusive and equitable.

The NAACP also raised concerns that project sponsors had failed to adequately analyze the impacts of the loss of parking from construction on predominantly black-owned businesses on the proposed route, filing a lawsuit in 2011.

In response, project sponsors used the NEPA process to hold additional meetings to hear the concerns of impacted communities. In total, the Metropolitan Council, City of St. Paul, and City of Minneapolis committed nearly $15 million to help small, local businesses in the corridor cope with the impacts of construction and the loss of street parking.

Although some twin city residents still remained opposed to the construction of the Metro Green Line, and that opposition should be respected, the NEPA review process provided a platform for real dialogue between local residents and city, state, and federal officials that resulted in clear improvements to the project.

In other words, had NEPA existed back in 1956, it would have given the Rondo-St. Anthony Improvement Association a fighting chance to save their community.

[1] “St Paul map shows how I-94 cut through heart of city’s African-American neighborhood.” City Pages. August 19 2014. Available at:
http://www.citypages.com/news/st-paul-map-shows-how-i-94-cut-through-heart-of-citys-african-american-neighborhood-6541556
[2] “Before it was cut in half by I-94, St. Paul’s Rondo was a thriving African-American cultural center.’ Minneapolis Post. June 19, 2017. Available at:

Before it was cut in half by I-94, St. Paul’s Rondo was a thriving African-American cultural center


[3] “When Communities Didn’t Have a Say.” Center for American Progress. April 24, 2018. Available at:

When Communities Didn’t Have a Say


[4] “Project aims to reconnect local communities divided by Interstate 94.” Minnesota Daily. March 12, 2019. Available at:
https://www.mndaily.com/article/2019/03/n-project-aims-to-reconnect-local-communities-divided-by-interstate-94
[5] “The ghost of Rondo still haunts I-94.” Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. May 11, 2017. Available at:

The ghost of Rondo still haunts I-94


[6] “Citizens versus the Freeway: RIP-35E and the Pleasant Avenue Route through St. Paul.” Ramsey County Historical Society. Vol. 47, No. 4., 2014. Available at:
https://publishing.rchs.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/RCHS_Winter2014_Milton.pdf
[7] “Central Corridor: In the shadow of Rondo.” Minnesota Public Radio. April 29, 2010. Available at:
https://www.mprnews.org/story/2010/04/20/centcorridor3-rondo
[8] “Rondo Neighborhood & I-94: Overview.” Minnesota History Center. Accessed April 23, 2019. Available at:
http://libguides.mnhs.org/rondo

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Dominion’s James River Transmission Project

More than 400 years of American history, including the first permanent English settlement in North America, were placed at critical risk in 2017 after the Army Corps of Engineers began construction on a nearly 7-mile-long stretch of massive 295-foot transmission towers within sight of Historic Jamestown and Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia.

Dominion Virginia Power, a for-profit energy company sponsoring the project, maintained that the state needed the energy from the power lines without which the regions could face rolling blackouts. However, the transmission project was met with considerable skepticism from local officials as well as other federal agencies who criticized the project on the basis that transmission construction would have adverse impacts on historically significant land and endangered species within the area.

Moreover, research from a 2015 report from the National Parks Conservation Association and Princeton Energy Research International suggested that Dominion’s underlying case for building massive transmission towers was based on faulty analysis – Dominion’s transmission line would provide more than four times the needed grid capacity.

The Army Corps of Engineers nonetheless pushed forward with the project, carrying out analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Passed into law with bipartisan support in 1969, NEPA requires federal agencies to complete an environmental review identifying and publicly disclosing any potential environmental, public health, or cultural impacts a project may have before a decision is made and the relevant permits are issued.

There was only one problem – the Army Corps of Engineers decided to carry out an Environmental Assessment (EA) instead of a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Whereas EAs are prepared for smaller projects and in cases where the impacts are uncertain, agencies are required to carry out an EIS for major projects like power plants and interstate highways.

Choosing to ignore tens of thousands of comments from concerned citizens as well as sharp criticism from other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Army Corps of Engineers concluded that the project would have no major impacts and that a detailed EIS was unnecessary. The Corps approved the project in 2017.

However, in a landmark court decision in March 2019, a federal appeals court found that the Army Corps of Engineers approval of Dominion’s transmission project to be in violation of NEPA on the basis that the permit was based on private research, lacked transparency and public engagement, and that the Corps  should have conducted an EIS.

Judge David Tatel described the significance of the area in detail, recounting Capt. John Smith’s voyage into the Chesapeake Bay and up the James River. “These journeys came to symbolize our nation’s founding and to serve as an equally important reminder of one of the darkest episodes in our history — the settlers’ devastation of Native American populations,” he wrote.
[1] “Appellate Court Says Corps Should Have Prepared EIS On James River Transmission Line.” National Parks Traveler. March 1, 2019. Available at:
[2] Natl. Parks Cons. Assoc. v. Todd Semonite, et al. No. 18-5179 (D.C. Circ. 2019). Available at:
https://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/87FABC162438AE4B852583B000549984/$file/18-5179.pdf
[3] “Court decision could doom already built Va. power line.” E&E News. March 1, 2019. Available at:
https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060122819
[4] “5 Myths and 5 Facts About Dominion’s Ill-Conceived Transmission Line Plan at Historic Jamestown.” National Parks Conservation Association. October 21, 2016. Available at:
https://www.npca.org/articles/1346-5-myths-and-5-facts-about-dominion-s-ill-conceived-transmission-line-plan

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Faulty Design Turns Lukeville Border Fencing Into Artificial Dam

The Southwest’s deserts are home to some of the most unpredictable flooding on the planet, and Arizona’s borderlands are no exception. Some floods happen during the days-long winter storms that soak the desert in El Niño years. But the most violent floods come in the summer monsoon season, when superheated air rises from the desert, drawing in moisture from the nearby Sea of Cortez.

The House of Representatives and then the Senate passed Representative Peter King’s Secure Fence Act of 2006, which required 700 miles of pedestrian exclusion fencing be built along the border. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law the following month. Two years later, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 required the Department of Homeland Security to finish 300 miles of that fencing by the end of that year.

By early 2008, Homeland Security had installed just under six miles of pedestrian fencing along the border near Lukeville, to ensure that migrants seeking to enter the U.S. from Sonoyta without permission had to traverse miles of unforgiving desert rather than skirting AZ 85 toward Ajo and civilization. Mindful of the threat from flash flooding, the fence was designed with wide-meshed iron grates along its bottom where it crossed washes, with 6- by-24-inch slots designed to allow water to pass more readily than the tight mesh making up the rest of the fence. During the project’s cursory environmental review, National Park Service scientists expressed concern that the grating wasn’t sufficient to prevent flooding problems. The Department of Homeland Security decided otherwise and built the fence.

On July 12 of that year, in a week in which nighttime low temperatures in Lukeville never dropped below 85°F, a series of powerful afternoon storm cells dumped two inches of rain in an hour.

When the flood reached the Homeland Security fence near Lukeville, the flood gate did not work as it was originally intended. Flood-borne debris instead plastered itself up against the base of the fence, forcing floodwaters up and over the inadvertent plug. On the downstream side of the fence, a cascade of water flowed over the debris, washing away the soil at fence’s base. Locals said the fence “acted like a dam,” backing up water as much as seven feet in some places along the fence near Lukeville.

The flood did significant damage to the Gringo Pass store, filling the entire building with water and debris. The owners eventually sued the federal government for $6 million to cover damages. The Lukeville Port of Entry on the border, and its Mexican counterpart in Sonoyta, also sustained heavy damage.

After the July 2008 floods in southern Arizona, the Army Corps of Engineers hired the contracting firm Michael Baker Jr., Inc. to assess possible threat from desert washes crossing the 600-odd miles of both border pedestrian fencing and vehicle barrier built under the Secure Fence Act and related programs. Baker’s report, provided in May 2009, was sobering.

In the area surveyed between San Diego and El Paso, Baker counted 27 washes that were capable of carrying flash floods like Lukeville 2008 or larger, which required radical redesign of the border barriers that crossed them. Another 135 washes were almost as threatening, but Baker assessed them as posing a manageable flood risk if the Border Patrol was diligent in clearing brush and debris away from the fence. (If you’re wondering who the Border Patrol would hire to do that brush hauling, you’re probably not alone.)

What redesigns did Baker suggest? Mainly that the sections of fence crossing washes prone to flood be replaced with gates that would be lifted or removed during monsoon season, or in advance of storms. In other words, make the fence less of a fence; make it more porous and permeable — and not coincidentally, less effective at keeping people from crossing the border.

Staff from the National Park Service’s Organ Pipe National Monument also produced their report detailing the extensive impacts of the pedestrian fence on the 330,000-acre monument, concluding that the fence failed to meet U.S. Corps of Engineers hydrologic performance standards set by CBP in its original environmental assessment for the project.

In 2010 the Army Corps of Engineers installed 10 such liftable gates near Lukeville as a pilot project. When monsoon season came along in 2011, someone apparently forgot to lift them. On August 7, a monsoonal storm dumped up to two inches of rain in the Ajo Mountains just northeast of Lukeville. The resulting flash flood tore out 40 feet of the new fence.

The Department of Homeland Security’s continued push to waive the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other laws on the southern border is having catastrophic effects on the environment and communities on both sides of the border. 

 

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Border Wall Construction in Nogales

During a 2008 construction push, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), without informing Mexico, built a 5-foot concrete barrier inside a storm-water tunnel that undocumented migrants used to move between Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona, effectively creating an underground dam. Citing its authority under the “Real ID Act of 2005,” the Department of Homeland Security waived environmental review for the project under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

That July, monsoon rains flooded eight feet deep on the streets of Nogales, Sonora, buckling roads, destroying 578 homes, 45 cars, and causing $8 million in damages. Two people drowned. The flooding caused a total of $8 million in damage and state officials declared the damaged part of the city a disaster zone.

Adding insult to injury, it turned out that the barrier was built on the Mexican side of the border and was constructed without notifying the International Boundary and Water Commission, according to agency spokesperson said Sally Spener. The commission requests that any agency doing work on the border that could affect storm drainage send it plans.

A week after the flooding, federal officials gave permission for the cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico to remove 1.5 feet from the concrete wall.

The flooding was later found to be linked to the storm drain that CBP had installed earlier that year, which had effectively created an underground dam.

All of this is to say that: 1) arbitrarily waiving environmental laws like NEPA is anathema to responsible planning; and, 2) government actions have historically had serious, often unanticipated consequences that deserve a fair accounting.

 
[1] Trump’s Border Wall Could Cause Deadly Flooding in Texas. Federal Officials Are Planning to Build It Anyway.” Texas Monthly. September 25, 2018. Available at:
https://www.texasmonthly.com/news/trumps-border-wall-cause-deadly-flooding-texas-federal-officials-planning-build-anyway/
[2] 6 ways the border wall could disrupt the environment.” National Geographic. January 10, 2019. Available at: 
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/01/how-trump-us-mexico-border-wall-could-impact-environment-wildlife-water/
 

 

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Shortcutting environmental reviews: the Deepwater Horizon disaster

The devastating 1969 blowout and oil spill at the Union Oil platform off the coast of Santa Barbara, which spilled an estimated 3-million gallon of crude oil into the ocean and created an oil slick 35- miles long, is widely considered to be one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the United States. At the time, it was the largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters. Today, it still ranks third behind only the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills.

That January 28, 1969 blowout was ultimately found have been a result of inadequate safety precautions taken by Union Oil. The company had received a waiver from the U.S. Geological Survey allowing it to build a protective casing around the drilling hole that was 61 feet short of the federal minimum requirements at the time. [1] The resulting explosion was so powerful it cracked the sea floor in five places, and crude oil spewed out of the rupture at a rate of 1,000 gallons an hour for a month before it could be slowed.

In its aftermath, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law requiring the federal government and companies like Union Oil to engage in an environmental review process to discover if a project will have any significant environmental and public impacts before a decision is made and construction begins.

NEPA also brought a new level of transparency and accountability to government decision-making. Drawing on our democratic values, NEPA’s public comment periods helped to ensure that projects would be undertaken with the benefit of our communities in mind. With the passage of NEPA, the American public believed an environmental catastrophe like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill would never happen again.
Three steps forward, two steps back
As the 1970s energy crisis unfolded, however, Congress passed legislation dramatically expanding domestic oil production that enshrined exemptions to NEPA for the central and western Gulf of Mexico.

Specifically, a 1978 Amendment to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) fast-tracked approvals for exploration plans and “expressly single[d] out the Gulf of Mexico for less rigorous environmental oversight under NEPA.” The Act exempted oil companies from submitting development and productions plans (which include environmental safeguards and are essential to the NEPA process) for agency approval.[2] Accordingly, Gulf leases, unlike those applicable to other offshore areas, “were not subject to the requirement of a NEPA environmental impact statement for development plans for a particular geographic area.” [3]

The Department of the Interior went even further. In January 1981, the Department promulgated final rules declaring that exploration plans in the central and western Gulf of Mexico were “categorically excluded’ from NEPA review,” and though it later allowed for NEPA reviews in certain circumstances, that proved to be the exception rather than the rule. [4]

Although laws like the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act remained in place and imposed substantive limits on activities, each of these have a narrow, discrete focus and statutory trigger: threats to endangered or threatened species or their habitat under the Endangered Species Act or, under the Clean Water Act, only the incidental aspects of oil and gas activities discharging pollutants into navigable waters.

The Santa Barbara oil spill a decade-old and fading memory, federal agencies and opponents in Congress began carving out exemptions and egregiously excluding entire categories of action from any environmental review.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion
That myopic decision to roll back the environmental review process for offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1970s had tragic consequences some thirty years later when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing eleven workers and spilling 210 million gallons of oil into the ocean.

It was the worst environmental disaster in US history – but it was also avoidable. A subsequent report by the specially appointed National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling found that that the Minerals Management Service was granted a categorical exclusion and “performed no meaningful NEPA review of the potentially significant adverse environmental consequences associated with its permitting for drilling of BP’s exploratory Macondo well” or subsequent drilling permits. MMS also “categorically excluded from environmental impact review BP’s initial and revised exploration plans—even though the exploration plan could have qualified for an “extraordinary circumstances” exception to such exclusion, in light of the abundant deep-sea life in that geographic area and the biological and geological complexity of that same area.” [5]

While the MMS assessed the environmental impact of drilling in the central and western Gulf of Mexico on three occasions in 2007 – including a specific evaluation of BP’s Lease 206 at Deepwater Horizon – in each case the prospect of a major blowout was severely downplayed.

In one assessment, the agency estimated that “a large oil spill” from a platform would not exceed a total of 1,500 barrels and that a “deepwater spill,” occurring “offshore of the inner Continental shelf,” would not reach the coast. At its peak, oil rushed out of the Macondo well at a rate of 8,000 barrels (340,000 gallons) of crude each day.

The commission concluded that “neither alone nor in combination [did] any of the laws come close to ensuring a reasonable level of overall environmental protection applicable to all aspects of oil and gas activities on the outer continental shelf.” [6]

To this day, opponents of the NEPA continue to peddle the pervasive falsehood that the environmental review process is the primary barrier to project completion. The conclusions of the bipartisan BP Deepwater Horizon Commission Deepwater disaster suggest that couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Even if Congress repealed NEPA tomorrow, project sponsors would still have to comply with laws and regulations governing endangered species, water quality, air quality, historic preservation, and wetland protection, among others. The biggest difference is that, without NEPA, these reviews would become balkanized and shielded from public scrutiny.

Such is the value of NEPA: the federal environmental review process works to counteract these organizations biases, requiring the government to take a holistic approach that ensures robust consideration of all potential environmental, economic, and public health impacts of a project.

Drill baby, drill
Like the Santa Barbara oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is a tragic example of the loss of life and irreversible harm to our environment harm that can occur when Congress, federal agencies, and oil companies seek to circumvent NEPA and other bedrock environmental laws.

And yet, opponents in Congress continue to introduce dozens of bills seeking to weaken or altogether waive critical protections for our environment and public health.

The “Offshore Energy and Jobs Act of 2015” (S. 1276), for example, was introduced in the last Congress by Senators Cochran (R- MS), Cornyn (R-TX), Vitter (R-LA), and Wicker (R-MS) – whose very constituents were most impacted by the Deepwater disaster. It would have placed severe restrictions on environmental review and eliminated any consideration of alternative courses of action.

Although supporters of reasonable protections and public engagement were able to fend off that as well as many other legislative attacks, the job isn’t getting any easier. Since the Deepwater disaster, dozens of similar bills have also been introduced seeking to expand offshore drilling at the expense of sensible protections for our environment.

Today, the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on yet another one of these bills, this one entitled the “Enhancing State Management of Federal Lands and Waters Act.” If passed, it would not only give states “exclusive jurisdiction” over offshore permitting and “regulation,” but also over leasing in so-called “enhanced management regions” (to be identified by states through an application process). All such state-managed activities would be entirely exempt from NEPA, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), and the Endangered Species Act.

It gets worse – a lot worse. A provision buried in this bill would also force coastal states to make a choice between allowing inherently dangerous offshore drilling or paying the federal government potentially billions of dollars. If a state declines to approve more than 50% of the lease blocks within a lease sale in order to protect its coastal economies, beaches, and communities, then it would be required to pay a portion of the projected revenue from the lease sale to the federal government. Tantamount to extortion, states would be required to pay 10% of the anticipated value of the entire lease sale, plus an additional 10% for each lease block that brings the number of lease blocks withdrawn at the state’s objection to over 50 percent.

The bottom line is that if we don’t act now, Congress could, little by little, take away our right to have a say about federal government actions on our own coastlines and in our own backyards. Our message is simple: Never Eliminate Public Advice.  

 
[1] Martin Miller. “The Oil Spill that Sparked the Green Revolution.” The Los Angeles Times. November 30, 1999.
[2] National Environmental Policy Act; Revised Implementing Procedures, 45 Fed. Reg. 75336 (proposed Nov. 14, 1980) (proposed NEPA rules); National Environmental Policy Act; Revised Implementing Procedures, 46 Fed. Reg. 7485 (Jan. 23, 1981) (final NEPA rules); see 516 Departmental Manual, 2.3.A(2) (1980).
[3] “Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling.” National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. January 2011.
[4] “Outer Continental Shelf Safety Oversight Board, Report to the Secretary of the Interior.” U.S. Department of the Interior. September 1, 2010. 
[5] National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
[6] Ibid.

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A world without NEPA: Rochester Inner Loop East

The city of Rochester, New York, is located along the shores of Lake Ontario. Like many prosperous cities in the first few decades of the 20th century, Rochester experienced a rapid increase in vehicle ownership and local roadway congestion. In response, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), working closely with city officials, began planning a series of projects to increase roadway capacity and improve traffic flow. A central element of these plans was a beltway that would circle the city that became known as the Inner Loop

At the time, state engineers expected that the region’s economy and population would continue to grow for decades to come, requiring an expansive facility able to accommodate steadily rising travel demand. Construction of the Inner Loop involved the condemnation of significant amounts of property around the city’s core – the widest section of the Inner Loop corridor would span nearly 355 feet, or 12 lanes, including frontage roads and access ramps. In order to maximize the speed and efficiency of vehicle movement, engineers also decided to make a large portion of the Inner Loop a grade-separated facility, meaning that the roadway is dug into the ground to avoid the need for intersections. This design allows the uninterrupted flow of vehicles.

The Inner Loop expressway opened to traffic in 1965. Unfortunately, NYSDOT engineers’ expectations did not match future realities. NYSDOT could not have anticipated the sprawl-inducing effects that the interstate highway system would have on the country, nor the loss of jobs and population that Rochester would experience due to structural changes in the economy.

While NYSDOT pushed forward with the Inner Loop, the federal government simultaneously began construction of the Interstate Highway System. In the Rochester area, this included the construction of Interstate 490, Interstate 390, and Interstate 590 to the south, west, and east of downtown. Over time, the mobility provided by these facilities pulled housing and jobs out of the city. This reduced the level of demand for the Inner Loop—especially the east portion, marked as State Route 940T, that runs northeast from the interchange with I-490 to Main Street.

Equally as consequential, Rochester’s population began to decline from a peak of 330,000 in the 1950s to approximately 209,000 today. For many years, the economic health of the Rochester region was tied to several Fortune 500 companies, including Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp., and Bausch & Lomb Inc., as well as the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology. At its peak, Kodak employed approximately 60,000 people within the region before layoffs pushed the number down to just a few thousand. In January 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. Since that time, local leaders have pushed to diversify the economy by leveraging the technical expertise of the labor force in fields tied to optics and photonics, among others. Yet even with these proactive steps, overall population growth has not returned to the city.

For years, travel demand along the eastern portion of the Inner Loop has been so low that even during rush hour the expressway is sometimes completely empty. In fact, total daily traffic on the eastern portion often falls below 7,000 vehicles—substantially less than what the facility was designed to carry. This means that the city and its residents are left to deal with all the negative consequences of the size and design of the expressway while it delivers few of the intended mobility benefits. Additionally, maintaining this underused facility has drained resources that could have been spent on other projects over the years. 

Beginning in 1990, city officials adopted a plan to reconstruct the eastern portion of the Inner Loop as an at-grade boulevard. In 2013, the city successfully applied for funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program to undertake the conversion. When completed, the boulevard will have several key elements designed to reconnect the downtown to the surrounding area and facilitate more pedestrian access, including wide sidewalks, generous tree canopy, a two-way cycle track, and reconnected city streets. 

Overall, the boulevard is intended to achieve four key goals: first, to right-size the roadway to reflect the reduced level of travel demand; second, to avoid the expense of repairing aging retaining walls and several structurally deficient bridges that spanned the Inner Loop East; third, to eliminate the immense physical barrier created by the Inner Loop that separates the city center from surrounding commercial districts and residential neighborhoods; and fourth, to return nine acres of land currently used as part of the loop to productive use as a combination of green space and mixed-use development with housing and retail businesses.

The total cost of converting the loop to a boulevard is $23.6 million. A comprehensive analysis determined that the projected benefit-to-cost ratio is more than 2-to-1. The largest savings come from avoiding major repair costs associated with the aging bridges and retaining walls of the Inner Loop East. Overall, the conversion will save the city and state an estimated $25.9 million. Additionally, new development on the nine acres of reclaimed land is projected to generate $7.3 million in value. Finally, the value of adjacent parcels to the new boulevard is expected to rise by more than $15 million.

The Inner Loop East conversion project occurred long before the adoption of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other important statutes designed to protect the environment and ensure robust public participation in the government decision-making process.

Because NYSDOT engineers were singularly focused was on efficiently moving large numbers of vehicles during the design phase of the Inner Loop – each design element, from the number of lanes to the grade-separated, access-controlled alignment, was intended to maximize the speed and carrying capacity of the expressway – the broader socio-economic impacts on Rochester’s downtown core and the surrounding neighborhoods were simply not considered. The once fluid connection that existed between downtown Rochester and east side neighborhoods, including East End, Upper East End, and Manhattan Square, was eliminated by what the Wadsworth Square Neighborhood Association called a “moat like” structure. 

This singular focus was the product of two organizations factors. First, highway engineers operated and continue to operate from a regional perspective. After all, highways are not isolated facilities but rather connected structures that form an integrated system. Changing the design in one location has cascading effects throughout the regional network. Second, the unit of analysis for highway engineers is the automobile. Design choices are judged by their impact on vehicle speed, capacity, and safety—not the ease of pedestrian crossings, the number of disruptions to the surrounding street grid, or the amount of derelict and unusable land that surrounds the facility. In essence, the measure of a structure stops at the structure’s edge, with its value determined by what happens between the lines.

By comparison, people—and neighborhoods more broadly—experience highway facilities in a nuanced way. A highway is not simply a line on a map associated with a daily vehicle count. Instead, a highway is a physical object that affects property values, zoning, economic development, safety, and access to opportunity, among other outcomes. The environmental review process is how community members can connect with planners to try to expand the design objectives to include considerations beyond what happens to vehicles.

Modern laws like NEPA work to counteract these organizational biases, requiring the government to take a holistic approach by engaging in a review process designed to discover any significant socio-economic, environmental, or public health impacts before a decision is made. This ensures that those who manage federal projects make the best decisions based on the best information while involving the public.

Building major facilities almost always means change for nature and communities, and the NEPA review process would not have helped state engineers in the 1950s peer into a crystal ball to foresee large-scale population loss and declining travel demand. However, the NEPA process would have given That means the Inner Loop. Local leaders have worked for over 25 years to remediate the damage done by the Inner Loop, and had local communities been given the same opportunity to weigh in on the project back in the 1950s, there is no reason to think a more integrated and sustainable solution like the one designed in 2013 might not have been the end result.

 

 

“Inner Loop East Transformation Project: Final Design Report—Volume 1.” City of Rochester Department of Environmental Services, New York State Department of Transportation, and Federal Highway Administration. 2014. Available at:

Duncan T. Moore. “No Rust in Rochester.” The New York Times. February 2, 2012. Available at:

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Atlantic Station (Atlantic Steel Site Redevelopment Project)

For almost a century, Atlanta’s Atlantic Steel Mill churned out barbed wire, plough shears, and galvanized steel in massive quantities destined for locations across the country. Once the largest steel mill in the South, at the height of its production in the 1950s, the facility employed more than 2,300 people and produced approximately 750,000 tons of steel annually.

The factory continued to operate on a limited degree into the 1970’s but was eventually forced to close its doors for good in 1998 as competition at home and abroad intensified. That left 138 acres of contaminated land abandoned in the heart of midtown Atlanta, one of the fastest growing cities in America.

Less than a year later, developers proposed a bold idea – what if the industrial property could be cleaned up and turned into a multi-use residential community? Planning quickly began on what would become the largest ever cleanup of a Brownfield site in history. They called it Atlantic Station.

The potential environmental and economic benefits of the project were numerous: cleanup of an old industrial property; separation of sanitary and storm sewer systems; reduction of auto emissions; and creation of jobs and economic development where infrastructure already exists.

However, because the Mill was located on an industrial property already known to be polluted by heavy metals and other potentially dangerous toxins, project sponsors immediately began working to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and enacted into law in 1970, NEPA requires the federal government to undertake an environmental review process designed to discover any significant environmental and public health impacts a project may have on local communities before construction begins.

We teach our children to “look before you leap.” NEPA simply and sensible requires our government to do the same.

All told, the cleanup of Atlantic station cost $3 billion and included removal of some 165,000 tons of soil from the property, the construction of the 17th Street Bridge over Interstate 75/85, and the development of a three-level, 8,000 space parking structure underneath the commercial core. The Environmental Protection Agency officially certified the property as safe for construction on Dec. 11, 2001, after two years of environmental cleanup.

From there, it took another $250 million of infrastructure investment in roads, sewers and utility lines before construction of buildings could begin in 2002.

A public comment period – mandated by the NEPA process – also played a crucial role in the successful revitalization of Atlantic Station. Public participation in the NEPA process serves two functions. First, individual citizens and communities affected by proposed action can be a valuable source of information and ideas. Second, allowing citizens to communicate and engage with federal decision-makers serves fundamental principles of democratic governance.

Local citizens filed a total of 255 comments identifying several concerns about the project. In particular, residents were concerned that the development could increase traffic congestion and negatively impact historic properties. As a result, 15 historic architectural sites were identified, listed in the National Register of Historic Properties, and preserved under the supervision of an archaeological consultant.

The comments also prompted significant design modifications to reduce traffic congestion and increase the project’s transportation connectivity. Atlantic Station is now easily accessible from two major interstates and a nearby public transit station. In total, the EPA estimates that the modifications to Atlantic Station reduced residents’ number of vehicle miles traveled by 34 percent and resident’s car emissions by 45 percent.

Today, Atlantic Station encompasses six million square feet of development, and includes more than 5,000 residents in 3,000 residential units, 7,000 employees, a luxury hotel, and 11 acres of public parks.

It also provided a new model for high-density, walkable urban development, and was recognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency for its contribution to emissions reductions. Perhaps most importantly, by knitting together Midtown Atlanta with the city’s long underserved and largely industrial west side, Atlantic Station was the catalyst for the wholesale revitalization of an entire quadrant of the city.

 

[1] “Environmental Assessment: 17th Street Extension and Atlantic Steel Redevelopment Project.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. August 2000. Available at:
https://archive.epa.gov/projectxl/web/pdf/assessment.pdf

[2] “Project XL and Atlantic Steel Supporting Environmental Excellence and Smart Growth.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. September 1999. Available at:
https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi?Dockey=P1009QPS.txt

[3] “Building a City Within the City of Atlanta.” The New York Times. May 24, 2006. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/24/realestate/commercial/24atlanta.html?mtrref=www.google.com

[4] “Health Consultation: Atlantic Station Redevelopment.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. August 9, 2004. Available at: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HAC/pha/AtlanticStation080904HC-GA/AtlanticStation080904HC-GA.pdf

 

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Success Stories

Shortcutting Environmental Reviews: Contaminated Drinking Water in Florida’s Lake Belt

Situated east of Everglades National Park, the 60,000-acre Lake Belt region is home to the Biscayne Aquifer’s vast underground network of fresh water reserves that provide 150 million gallons of clean drinking water to some 6.5 million South Floridians every day.

The Aquifer was intentionally built on the remote, half-wild outskirts of Miami-Dade County to ensure that South Florida’s drinking water would remains safe from contamination by development and industry.

In early 2002, however, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved several permits allowing for the mining of limestone on a total of 5,700 acres in the Lake Belt.

Three years later in January of 2003, benzene – a cancer-causing chemical – was detected at a Miami-Dade County water treatment facility. Although benzene emerged as a common household chemical found in everything from shaving cream to industrial lubricant, the EPA officially declared it a hazardous pollutant in 1977 after it was discovered exposure was linked to an increase risk of leukemia 1977.

The legal limit for benzene in drinking water is one part per billion. Samples from Miami-Dade County indicated benzene levels were five times that limit. Weeks later, another well in the Lake Belt registered traces of benzene and was ordered shut down.

Thankfully, Miami-Dade’s water treatment facilities proved fully capable of purifying the water; at no point during the crisis were any customers exposed to heightened levels of benzene.

Nonetheless, the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department (WASD) immediately launched a months-long investigation, the cost of which would eventually grow to exceed $1 million. The investigation led them straight to the Lake Belt’s limestone mines. 

In order to mine the limestone, four-inch-wide holes were drilled into the ground, filled with explosives, and blown up. Upon further inquiry, the team learned that most of the mining firms were using ANFO — ammonium nitrate fuel oil — of which a small constituent is benzene.

A coalition of environmental groups including Sierra Club, NRDC, and NPCA sued in federal court to halt the limestone mining and protect South Florida’s drinking water, alleging that the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mishandled the permitting process.

Judge William Hoeveler condemned the Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife Service for “failing to carry out their duty” to safeguard the surrounding wetlands and ruled that the conclusions in the original Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) were based on inaccurate industry information. The mining permits for the three companies closest to the wells were cancelled in July of 2007.

In his scathing, 176-page written opinion, the judge wrote that “In three decades of federal judicial service, this Court has never seen a federal agency respond so indifferently to clear evidence of significant environmental risks.” Judge Hoeveler concluded that limestone mining directly contributed to the benzene contamination and pointedly blamed the Corps for failing to address it.

Had the Corps of Engineers carried out due diligence and handled the Environmental Impact Statement properly instead of rubberstamping it, the mining companies would likely have been forced to use alternative explosives from the start and drinking water contamination could have been avoided. Instead, cleanup of the contaminated wells required tens of millions of dollars in needless expense.

The story of Lake Belt is a sobering reminder that when safeguards like environmental reviews mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are rushed or ignored, the financial, environmental, and public health consequences can be severe.

Many NEPA “reforms” under discussion by President Trump and opponents in Congress threaten the impartiality of this review process. Proposed reforms such as fining already cash-strapped federal agencies for missing permitting deadlines or further delegating environmental reviews to states – many of which are facing their own budget crises – aren’t likely to speed up the environmental review process. The outcome would be more delays or the approval of poorly conceived projects threatening our environmental and public health.

 

[1] Sierra Club v. Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp, No. 07-13297 (11th Cir. 2008). Available at: https://cases.justia.com/federal/appellate-courts/ca11/09-10877/200910877-2011-02-28.pdf?ts=1411113348

[2] “Titan’s Florida mining permit canceled by judge.” Star News Online. February 3, 2009. Available at:
http://www.starnewsonline.com/news/20090203/titans-florida-mining-permit-canceled-by-judge

[3] “Poisoned Well.” Miami New Times. March 20, 2008. Available at:
http://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/poisoned-well-6363391

[4] “Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on Rock Mining in the Lake Belt Region of Miami-Dade County, Florida.” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. May 2009. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=hDk0AQAAMAAJ

[5] “Army Corps re-permits Lake Belt rock mines.” South Florida Business Journal. January 29, 2010. Available at:
https://www.bizjournals.com/southflorida/stories/2010/01/25/daily70.html

 

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Success Stories

The Crown Jewel of America’s Interstate Highway System: Colorado’s I-70 Mountain Corridor

For many years, the I-70 Mountain Corridor, which runs from Denver, Colorado to Glenwood Springs, experienced severe congestion – particularly on weekends. In the winter, I-70 provides access to of the country’s premier ski resorts including Vail, Aspen, Winter Park, Keystone and Breckenridge. In the summer, I-70 also serves as a gateway into the Rocky Mountains for campers, bikers, hikers, climbers and kayakers alike.

When the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) began exploring expanding the I-70 Mountain Corridor in the 1970s, however, they found the project presented unique challenges. Much of the interstate cuts through narrow valleys where there is little room to add additional lanes. Where it is feasible to add lanes, cost are high and there the risk of rockslides remains ever present.

In order to improve the corridor’s capacity and mobility, CDOT’s original proposal included blasting through cliff, building unattractive retaining walls, and channeling the Colorado River.

When CDOT began work on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) shortly after, a process that seeks to encourage public input in government decision-making with mandated comment periods, they discovered that a majority of stakeholders (including local residents) were firmly opposed to the plan. 

In response, used the National Environmental Policy Act’s (NEPA) review process to initiate a collaborative decision-making process to identify a new reconstruction plan. The Colorado Highway Commission’s lone environmental member helped to form a Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) of design and ecological professionals, with members from the Colorado Open Space Coalition and western Colorado interests.

In 1978, after two years of design review, a new proposal was brought before the public that incorporated local input including the suggestion to place a section of the highway in tunnels to protect the scenic Hanging Lake area from noise and visual impacts.

The final design preserved the natural topography and maintains the integrity of the Colorado River and side rivers entering it. Eastbound and westbound lanes often diverge with one lane rising over a bridge or ducking through a tunnel, preserving the canyon floor, walls, vegetation, and river where possible. Forty bridges and viaducts (totaling 6.5 miles) and three tunnels minimized the highway’s impact on its surrounding environment while the speed limit was set at 50 miles per hour to improve safety.

A construction technique called balanced cantilever construction was also utilized. The technique allowed each section of the highway to be built on bridge columns, reducing damage to the canyon. Other features added to the final design included four rest stops, a bike and jogging path along the length of the canyon, a boat launch, and a raft drop allowed for canyon recreational use by tourists and regional residents.

The result of the NEPA process was a 12.5-mile stretch of highway with lower environmental impacts.

“NEPA helped engineers to understand ecology and environmental design. In this case, without it, the CAC would have been ignored or abolished and the unique Canyon would have been destroyed. NEPA ensured that citizens and design professionals were heard in preserving the Canyon,” said Bert Melcher, a citizen activist.

The project has since won more than thirty awards for innovative design and environmental sensitivity, with the American Society of Civil Engineers giving the project its Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award in 1993.

 

[1] “I-70 Mountain Corridor History.” Colorado Department of Transportation. Accessed February 16, 2018. Available at:
https://www.codot.gov/projects/i-70-old-mountaincorridor/trafficrevenuestudy/i-70-mountain-corridor-history

[2] McNichol, Dan. “The Roads that Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System.” New York: Sterling Publishing, 2006. pp. 230-258.

[3] “Glenwood Canyon I-70 Final Link.” Colorado Department of Transportation. Accessed February 26, 2018. Available at:
https://www.codot.gov/about/CDOTHistory/50th-anniversary/interstate-70/glenwood-canyon

[4] “Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement: Glenwood Canyon I-70.” S. Army Corps of Engineers. June 14, 1982. Available at: http://hermes.cde.state.co.us/drupal/islandora/object/co%3A21143

[5] “Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement (OCEA) Award Past Winners.” American Society of Civil Engineers. Accessed February 26, 2018. Available at:
https://www.asce.org/oceakit/?all_recipients=1

 

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Rhode Island’s Route 403: building community consensus

Route 403, also known as the Quonset Freeway, was originally a two-lane road that cutting through Washington and Kent counties in Rhode Island.

In 2006, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) proposed relocating Route 403 and building a new four-lane highway in order to alleviate the severe congestion plaguing the largely residential area of North Kingstown. 

Local residents raised concerns. “We didn’t see why we had to go to a whole new highway,” said Sierra Club activist Barry Schiller, representing the interests of environmental organizations.

To a certain extent, RIDOT agreed. “There is a big benefit if you don’t build a new road,” Healey said, “Building is not always the best choice, but the end result was the need for a freeway connection,” said Peter Healey, Principal Civil Engineer for RIDOT.

Thanks to the National Environmental Policy Act’s (NEPA) mandated public comment periods, however, residents of North Kingstown and other local communities were able to voice their concerns.

Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and enacted into law in 1970, simply put, NEPA requires government agencies to engage in a review process intended to discover any significant environmental and public health impacts before a decision is made and construction begins. By mandating public input on the impacts of major federal projects like roads, power plants, and pipelines, NEPA provides a forum for communities to make their voices heard in important decisions that affect their health, homes and environment. 

We teach our children to “look before you leap.” NEPA simply and sensible requires our government to do the same.

Over the course of many months, RIDOT and other government officials met with local representatives and held several briefings for North Kingston’s town council to hear their concerns. In one of the town council meetings, the suggestion was brought up to include a culvert for small-animal crossings. “I probably wouldn’t have thought of that on my own,” Healey said.

“NEPA played a vital role in balancing these views. It allows you to seek impact and balance a project…You can’t make all parties happy, but you can certainly balance their interests,” said Healey. “The people that live [in the affected area] know more than I do.”

Healey added that he and his team made extensive efforts to involve the public early in the design process. “We did look at widening the existing road in identifying alternatives…as well as [about] eight different alternatives for the location of the new route,” Healey said, explaining how NEPA was used.

The NEPA process resulted in modifications to the original plan suggested by local citizens that the RIDOT would not have otherwise thought of, including a reduction in acreage that significantly lessened damage to wetlands.

Although some local environmental groups were not completely satisfied with the overall outcome, local Sierra Club President Schiller agreed that NEPA was an essential element in making some of the positive changes in the project. “It clearly minimized the impacts.”

According to his records, the EIS indicated a loss of 50 acres of open space including five acres of wetlands. The final design reduced the impact to 2.42 acres of wetland loss. “NEPA has worked in Rhode Island to improve designs of highways,” he added.

Major construction on the freeway was completed in December 2008, one year ahead of schedule. Minor projects continued on the relocated route until early 2009.

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The Partnership Project's NEPA campaign is a registered 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization.