Comment of the Week

From Ben on the previous post, concerning the environmental impact reporting process for major transit infrastructure:

What bothers me about environmental assessments today is that they take YEARS to finish. I don’t know what’s involved with this, but I work for the federal government in an agency that is tasked with being an environmental steward, and I can only imagine the bureaucracy that takes place with transit-based environmental assessments if it’s anything like my office. The problem with the federal government is that it sets up rules and regulations based on the worst case scenario, and then applies it to the whole country, giving agencies NO leeway in local situations.

It seems like nobody stops to think, hey, you know what? We want to build a high-speed transit line through an area that is already severely impacted by humans anyway (i.e. an EA for somewhere like the Everglades would be the exception, not the rule to apply EVERYWHERE)… plus, the net environmental benefit from building this transit line would be a POSITIVE (i.e. fewer cars on the road), even if we destroy some little animal’s habitat.

So really, let’s just skip 95% of these EAs and get on with it. I’m serious. It’s mostly a waste of time and resources, when in reality, even after years of this BS, they’re going to build the line anyway.

I am not agreeing or disagreeing, just putting this forward for discussion.  My biologist friends would point out that the evolutionary ancestors of our illustrious selves were once little animals, too.  On the other hand, EIAs do seem to take forever, and end up in litigation anyway …

20 Responses to Comment of the Week

  1. EngineerScotty May 17, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    The “environment” studied in an EIS is not just the natural environment, though that’s part of it. The EIS process forces planners to document other things, too, such as what neighborhoods will be wrecked, what people will be displaced, what places of historical or cultural significance will be disturbed.
    Much of the process is, or at least seems to be, an attempt to ward off the worst parts of the freeway expansions and other urban renewal disasters in the decades after WWII–where some neighborhoods WERE bulldozed (sometimes intentionally), others found themselves jammed with all sorts of traffic fron the new freeway that ended nearby, and such.
    So the process does serve a purpose beyond ensuring that turtles can cross the tracks safely.
    Whether it serves the purpose well, or not, I don’t know. The red tape and expense involved is immense, the process can be gamed (especially by opponents of infrastructure projects), and assuming that a EIS doesn’t leave something important out, need not affect the outcome–decision makers can ultimately decide to bulldoxe a neighborhood anyway; the main purpose is for that affect to be documented and visible.

  2. Brian May 17, 2010 at 2:21 pm #

    The point of an EA is to determine if there’s any significant environmental impact (in which case an EIS is done as well). Leaving it to an agency to assume without study that some area is already so impacted by humans that no environmental study is warranted seems convenient, but the lack of collected evidence destroys accountability for those decisions (allowing them to be made in bad faith) and also eliminates the mandate to collect the evidence that’s necessary to do any more reliable than assume. (Moreover, a lot of agencies would tend to assume in favor of their preconceived plan if they weren’t forced to confront the information an EA collects.) The EIS is the exception-to-the-rule component, although the standard for “significant environmental impact” is somewhat lower than “is it the Everglades Y/N?”
    As for implementation, a lot of EAs approach the complexity of an EIS because of concerns that a finding of no significant impact will be litigated. And no doubt an EIS takes a long time, but that’s because it mandates consideration of alternatives and public input (and then plenty of subsequent litigation) – it doesn’t simply assume that whatever an agency’s dream project is is the best option, especially when that agency may otherwise choose its preferred alternative without even considering environmental impacts and mitigation.
    So I would say that they’re unwieldy and time-consuming, but they’re balanced against the very substantial good of avoiding ill-considered projects with negative and long-term impacts on the human and natural environment. We pay now and save later.

  3. Kyle May 17, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    To my knowledge transit projects in Alberta don’t need an EA – they just need to conform with the base planning documents of the city. Even then, projects do take the standard 5 years, no faster than the Canada Line which required a federal environmental assessment.
    In Ontario interestingly to force through approval of a large rail corridor expansion, they created a new class of Environmental assessment, called the Transit Environmental Assessment to allow projects to get approved in 6 months rather than the otherwise statutory 2 years. EAs in Ontario had really grown however, into a document that included technology choice, capacity, and all that.

  4. EngineerScotty May 17, 2010 at 3:08 pm #

    An aside: Is the “comment of the week” to be a weekly feature? 🙂

  5. Peter Smith May 17, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    i’d be curious if anyone actually thinks that high speed rail takes cars off the road? would make me generally skeptical of the pov of someone who wants to do away with EIRs.
    also, what kind of logic is, “well this place is ruined, so let’s not worry if we ruin it some more”?
    EIRs can be great in that they allow a community to resist corporate power. the main problem with EIRs is that some of the rules are jacked — like California’s weird ‘impact’ measurements — and allowing folks like the Governator to bypass EIRs whenever they feel like it – basically, a corporate power exemption. not cool.

  6. MB May 17, 2010 at 4:18 pm #

    EA’s can be very beneficial in determining appropriate compensation measures for initial habitat loss. Some habitats are better if left intact or, if damaged, are remediated incrementally into a whole ecosystem. Other habitats can afford some damage or removal by comparison.
    In Metro Vancouver that often translates into allowing some habitat damage in one location, say losing a part of an immature upland forest to a rapid transit line, and in return rebuilding the banks and riparian habitat of an ancient salmonid stream elsewhere in the community, therein protecting a larger watershed. The tradeoffs are often more generous toward compensation measures.
    On the other hand, EA’s are often misused by NIMBYs to delay projects in their effort to meet a narrow political agenda. One environmental activist whispered the word “turtle” to a local journalist in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, and a three-year dredging project was delayed by eight months while a search for a red-listed native turtle species was undertaken AFTER the dredging contract was awarded. It cost the local taxpayers millions, and the lucky contractor got paid for months without having to lift a finger.
    Oh yeah, they found only unwanted domestic turtle species that survived for years after being dumped in the lake from kid’s aquariums. Meanwhile, the environmental and other benefits of dredging Burnaby Lake were ignored. These included increasing the storm water storage capacity of a lake rapidly filling with sediment in an urban area with high annual rainfall, removing contaminants from the dewatered sediment, removing aggressive invasive aquatic plant species that have taken over huge swathes of the lake, the use of 300,000 m3 of sandy sediment to cover a nearby old abandoned dump and to reclaim the land for recreational purposes, and the creation of a world class rowing facility.
    Many ‘environmentalists’ saw only the words “rowing facilty” and ignored everything else. The EA, on the other hand, was very professional and included the recreational values, but on a lower scale than the benefits to ecological and hydrological systems.

  7. Rob May 17, 2010 at 7:21 pm #

    I certainly agree that there is room for streamlining NEPA to get rid of work that has no purpose – bravo. On the other hand, I agree also that it’s weird to think we would exempt transit project from the need to mitigate for their environmental effects simply because transit is so inherently good, whatever and wherever the project is. It’s a best practice to make sure big capital projects will avoid, minimize or mitigate their impacts on the environment. Still, that could be done with a lot less paperwork.
    Unfortunately though, the environmental process has served as the primary decision documentation to make sure there is some sort of rigorous analysis done to assess whether a proposed project is the best one, whether it’s worth doing, and whether it will make things better for its users and non-users alike. In the old days, when FTA required demonstration of technical benefits (rather than supporting undefinable and unquantifiable livability), the environmental process served as the vehicle prompting that evaluation. Without an expectation for cost-effectiveness, the environmental process is even less useful.
    I’m a fan of rail and large transit capital projects. But not every rail project is a good one, and the political process that directs rail projects these days assures that many are not. The environmental process is the only step remaining that requires a serious look at the facts around a project. I would argue that the process be streamlined, but also strengthened to require a sincere disclosure of potential impacts and to prompt the kind of discussion that should accompany any major long-term capital investment.

  8. Justin Wied May 18, 2010 at 2:10 am #

    I’ve always thought the problem with an EIS/EA is not its process but the time involved. We seem to take each individual project as though it’s charting into new territory. The fact is multiple projects of differing infrastructure can be built in the same area but require individual assessments.
    I don’t assume that they have the same impact on their environs. But why don’t we look at areas, especially the urban built environment, and assess what’s there now? Plot what would be new over what we know is sensitive. I understand that’s overly simplistic, but to me it seems an easier and less costly (time and money) paradigm to our current system of “go out and scout what we already should know is there”.

  9. Daniel May 18, 2010 at 5:41 am #

    Since I favor transit in general, I can read this comment and nod in agreement. But if I replace the word “transit” with “highway,” my gut reaction is to keep the EIS as strong as ever. In terms of process, that’s a red flag. As above comments have mentioned, NEPA should be objective, mode-neutral, and tuned in to the specifics of the situation.
    I like Justn’s idea for streamlining. Get some of the background data for an area in place beforehand and make it easily available, in order to save the need to duplicate it’s collection.

  10. Tom West May 18, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    “Environment” does *not* just mean trees and wildlife, or the natural environment generally. If you look on page 7 of this PDF: , then you’ll see the EA also covers physical environment, which includes things like topography (the presence of hills/valleys and how to deal with them), soils (how easily you can build on them) and drainage (avoiding flooding). These are independent of whether you are in the middle of a city or a national park.
    EAs also cover the Socio-Economic environment – the effect on nearby people and buisnesses (and their effect of the proposed transport). This is vital to the success of any transport scheme.
    In my experience, transit and road EAs take a similar length of time for a given scheme size, and I don’t think that transit projects are held up by EAs any more than than road projects.

  11. Tom West May 18, 2010 at 6:25 am #

    Kyle wrote: To my knowledge transit projects in Alberta don’t need an EA – they just need to conform with the base planning documents of the city.
    That may be true, but the Offical Plan has to go through a lengthy approvals process, which probably takes as long as an EA. In affect, when you apporve the Official Plan, you approve the project.
    (Alberta also gets cities to annexe surronding land *before* it gets developed, a policy I wish was/had been more widely adopted in North America).

  12. Bossi May 18, 2010 at 7:06 am #

    Having worked with several EIS’, I do believe that much of the information is valuable to consider for most projects — it spans the natural, artificial, and socio-economic environments.
    I take greater issue, however, with how so many private projects seem to be capable of touting such processes… it’s one thing to pave over the land with road or rail, but I find myself looking at how easy it is to pave over with parking lots and buildings.

  13. Leo Petr May 18, 2010 at 8:28 am #

    Ontario now has an accelerated EA process for transit projects which is designed to be completed in 6 months.

  14. Joseph E May 18, 2010 at 10:08 am #

    The real problem is in places like California, where the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) puts up further barriers to new infrastructure projects, above and beyond federal laws. Unfortunately, the main “environmental impacts” considered here seem to be whether traffic is increased, cars are slowed down, or parking is lost. Real “environmental” factors, like air or water pollution, noise, greenhouse gases, dependence on oil, seem to get little mention in these reports.
    The process itself is long enough, but then just about any NIMBY group can file a lawsuit to delay a project another couple years, no matter the merits of their case.
    Look at San Francisco, where a judge had put an injunction on the city to prevent them adding more bike lanes, because it might slow down cars and reduce parking! That’s wacky.

  15. EngineerScotty May 18, 2010 at 10:55 am #

    In the case you mention, Joseph, the City of San Francisco was attempting a large bike-enhancement project consisting of numerous small bike improvement projects–and attempted to bypass the normal process by insisting that rather than being one large project of sufficient scope to require environmental analysis, the project was in reality dozens of de minimis projects, each independent, none of which triggered the need for analysis.
    The judge, as you note, didn’t buy that.

  16. MB May 18, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

    @ Tom West: “(Alberta also gets cities to annexe surronding land *before* it gets developed, a policy I wish was/had been more widely adopted in North America).”
    What an absurd statement.
    If true, this policy helps explain why Calgary is purpose built for cars, not for human beings. It also explains why Calgarians consume / waste almost triple the area of land per capita as Vancouver, and nearly 1.5 times the land per capita as Toronto under similar growth and developent rates.
    Calgary is a city of contrasts. It has a fairly high LRT ridership, yet its urban form outside of downtown is completely dominated by major arterials, sound attenuation walls and big houses on large lots with at least two vehicles per family. It prides itself on having a cowboy image, but gobbles up thousands of hectares of prime Chernozemic soils (ranch + farm land) that take mellennia to make and converts it into sprawling subdivisions.
    From several points of view including environment, the opposite should be policy: Place an iron band around Calgary’s existing boundaries until the population triples to three million and they learn to live in a more sustainable fashion, including using the huge tracts of open land WITHIN the city limits more efficiently.

  17. Alon Levy May 19, 2010 at 9:35 am #

    Major arterials are standard in new cities. Shanghai and Singapore both have elevated freeways, arterials you can only cross on footbridges, and sound attenuation walls. They also have very low car ownership, even for their level of wealth.
    Basically, it boils down to the fact that Calgary cares about being a livable and efficient city (at least in its downtown area), but couldn’t give a flying fuck about the environment.
    I’m not sure how many vehicles per capita Calgary has. But Vancouver has high car ownership as well. At a transit mode share of 15% or even 20%, people still own cars. You need to go much more than that to significantly cut car ownership, ideally more than 50%.

  18. Nathanael May 23, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    The real problem, to me, is not the EIS — they sometimes get done within two years — but the way in which other things are *delayed* for the EIS.
    The EIS should be an integral part of the design. By the time design is finished, the EIS should be finished. And so should all the permitting.
    This is not what is happening. Instead, some sort of hoops I do not understand cause things to have to stop at many many points and wait for approval from different government departments. And the real problem is that much of it apparently has to be done in *sequence*, not in parallel.
    Here in the US, the “full funding grant agreement” being required before “authorization to go into final design” (!?!?), but with the EIS being required before the FFGA, is an example of this kind of nonsense.
    Oh, I remember a while back the EIS wasn’t allowed to be started until a “major investment study” was finished, or something? Aaaaarrrrrggggghhhh.
    I think it’s the sequencing which is killer. Parallelism should make things like this work a lot better.

  19. Nathanael May 23, 2010 at 9:03 pm #

    @ Joseph E:
    “The real problem is in places like California, where the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) puts up further barriers to new infrastructure projects, above and beyond federal laws. Unfortunately, the main “environmental impacts” considered here seem to be whether traffic is increased, cars are slowed down, or parking is lost. ”
    You are so right. Lost parking and slowed cars should *not* be considered a “negative environmental impact”, when *people-moving* is increased by the project. Perhaps this is the biggest problem…. bogus stuff masquerading as “negative impact”.

  20. Nathanael May 23, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    @Peter Smith: “i’d be curious if anyone actually thinks that high speed rail takes cars off the road?”
    Well, it does, it’s just that as long as there’s open road space, different cars replace the cars taken off the road. 🙂