How the Environmental Review Process Privileges Highway Construction Over Transit

U.S. transit projects have a much harder time getting environmental approval than road projects, perpetuating the dominance of cars in U.S. transportation policy.

2 minute read

August 25, 2021, 12:00 PM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Highway Construction

Sheri Armstrong / Shutterstock

Henry Grabar questions the logic of environmental review processes that delay transit projects and, counterintuitively, ease the way forward for highway construction. "[O]n the eve of a once-in-a-generation federal investment in infrastructure," Grabar writes, "the environmental review process for big projects is totally unfit for the task at hand. Transportation is the country’s largest source of carbon emissions, but ideas that aim to reduce dependence on planes, cars, and trucks have even more trouble gaining environmental approval than highways."

An "analysis of 180 projects here and abroad found that U.S. projects cost 50 percent more and take 18 months longer to conclude than similar projects abroad," in part because "American transit builders use environmental reviews as an opportunity to plan routes and engage with the community, transforming what might be a cut-and-dried assessment into an interminable back-and-forth."

Meanwhile, "the ease with which highways get funded and constructed, observes Joe Cortright at the think tank City Observatory in Portland, Oregon, makes it harder in turn for transit to prove its success" and helps, as Grabar puts it, "perpetuate the dominance of ice cap–melting SUVs in American transportation policy." A nationwide policy similar to California's 2020 decision to "exempt sustainable local transportation projects from undergoing analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act for the next four years" could alleviate the problem and give transit projects a fighting chance.

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