When an Environmental Impact Statement takes a lifetime

Ian Rasmussen, New Urban Network

Last month New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the “Access to the Region’s Core” rail tunnel project. His position — that the state could not afford the expected cost overruns — can hardly be ignored, given that the project’s price tag has ballooned from approximately $5 billion when originally announced in 1995, to $8.7 billion, and is expected to be $2.3 to $5.3 billion over budget. While the waves of criticism that followed mainly concern quality of life and economic development in New Jersey, almost nothing has been said of the environmental impact of damning hundreds of thousands of potential rail commuters to a lifetime of commuting by car and bus. In light of rising gas prices and “the inconvenient truth,” the feasibility and environmental impact of another generation of auto commuting are daunting to say the least.

To understand why the project’s costs have doubled over the past 15 years, we would do well to ask why it takes so long to plan a new train tunnel in the first place. After all, inflation alone over the same period accounts for 43.5 percent of the increase.

The story of ARC began in 1995 with the start of a “Major Investment Study” that reviewed 137 alternative transportation improvements that would get commuters from central and northern New Jersey out of their cars, and into Manhattan faster, cheaper, and with less harm to the environment. After four years of study, the list was narrowed down to a few finalists in 1999. From 1999 to 2003, the feasibility of each of those plans (exactly where the tracks would be laid, and how they would connect to Penn Station) was studied, and the ultimate plan ironed out. From 2003 to 2009, the final plan — two new rail tunnels leading to a new lower level of Penn Station — was the subject of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

It can’t possibly take the best and the brightest of America’s civil engineers four years to narrow down the short list of feasible solutions to a problem, right? Surely many of the 137 candidates were probably not good ideas to begin with. It can’t possibly take four years to figure out how to extend a rail line and design two new tunnels. American engineering firms are currently doing the same thing for China in a matter of months. Most importantly, it doesn’t take six years of environmental review to determine that this project would have a net positive impact on our environment. Let’s not forget the whole point was to take a hundreds of thousands of car and bus trips, and convert them to the more environmentally friendly train. So why did we spend 14 years thinking about what is obviously a good idea? Sadly, the answer is Environmentalism.

The National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 (NEPA) is the crowning achievement of the 20th century environmental movement. In short, the act requires government agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making. Such integration is done by way of studies, and Environmental Impact Statements (EIS’s) that explain how every aspect of the environment (from endangered species, to socioeconomic trends) have been considered, and why the alternatives are not the preferred course. It’s basically the polar opposite of Robert Moses’s no-excuses top-down planning.

From the start, environmentalists used the law as a way to stall projects in the courts. In the years since, government agencies have spent more time “considering” environmental impacts, simply to avoid such intractable litigation. In some cases, such as the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, even a 3,000-page EIS cannot prevent a project from being tied up in litigation concerning the sufficiency of its environmental review.

In the case of ARC, environmental review meant first studying every possible transportation alternative before the finalists were chosen, lest anyone complain that an alternative was never seriously looked at. Next they studied every conceivable way of executing the handful of finalist plans, and only then did they undertake the six-year process of actually preparing an EIS that considered every possible impact of the final plan.

When you think about the sheer amount of pollution created by every car and bus commuting between New Jersey and Manhattan since 1995, is there any doubt that performing the environmental review for ARC proved detrimental to the environment? Whether the new train tracks will disturb the ecosystem of New Jersey’s Meadowlands or the new tunnel will churn through an archaeologically sensitive area seems negligible by comparison to environmental impact of waiting 15 years to start the project, and now never completing it at all.

Ian Rasmussen is an attorney and urbanist living in New York City. His practice focuses on zoning, and urban design.