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.

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.

Thursday, August 19, 2021 in Slate

Soldier Field

Phase 1 Revealed for $20 Billion Chicago Megaproject

Plans for One Central, a proposed megadevelopment that would add 22.3 million square feet of buildings to the city of Chicago, are taking shape.

October 19, 2021 - Chicago Tribune


Boston Introduces 'Maximum Parking Ratios' for Large Buildings

Large buildings with uses of all kinds will be subject to Boston's new "Maximum Parking Ratios."

October 14, 2021 - Streetsblog Mass

A person in a bright green vest with the words "Covid Marshall" patrols a street fair in Australia.

5 Tips for Planning Safe Post-Pandemic Events

As community events start move off-screen and become available to the public again, here are five ways organizers can ensure public health and safety.

October 13, 2021 - Devin Partida

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.