Quick Links
Discovery Guides Areas

  Environmental Policy Issues

Highways and Environmental Impact Issues
(Released April 2005)



Key Citations

Web Sites


Contact Editor

The open road, the wind in your hair, the scenery whizzing by: this is a primal scene of what it means to be an American. Clogged highways, however, are increasingly the reality. Transportation projects across the United States have faced a recurring pattern of local resistance leading to delays that can last, not just months, not just years, but decades. Local community groups, opposed to highways in or near their neighborhoods, are one factor in delays. Environmental groups, fighting to protect sensitive environmental areas and to maintain clean air, are another. There is no question that these stakeholders deserve an important role in transportation planning. Yet people need to get from point A to point B, from home to work to shopping to vacation. With population expanding, highways-or some form of alternative transportation--need to be built, and some communities must pay the price. Finding the balance between environment and urbanization is tricky. Believing that the laws then in effect simply caused too much delay, in 1998 Congress passed the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21), which streamlines the environmental review process. Effective means of implementing TEA 21, however, remain in the development stage.

Each major highway or other transportation project impacts the environment in a variety of ways. The human environment is enhanced by access between existing communities; in addition, transportation networks encourage future development. Businesses also benefit, encouraging economic growth. The most immediate negative impact on the human environment is the destruction of existing homes and businesses. Longer term impacts include noise, air pollution, and potential loss of living quality. Wildlife and plants, in concert with humans, suffer from habitat destruction and various forms of pollution. In addition, while facilitating transportation for humans, highways do the opposite for wildlife. Ecosystems suffer fragmentation; habitats and biomes that had worked in cohesion are separated. Migratory species find their progress blocked; some may be separated into genetic islands, impoverishing future biodiversity and leading to local extinctions. Transportation projects may also necessitate the draining or contamination of wetlands, crucial habitat for many species, and important for flood control and filtering and cleaning water. Current laws require that wetlands be reclaimed, or created somewhere else; however these may not provide the same benefits as the destroyed wetlands.

bear crossing road
Roads fragment animal habitat

To minimize the harmful effects of transportation and other projects, in 1969 the U.S. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It mandates three levels of study for projects depending on size and complexity, as explained by The Congressional Research Service (CRS) Issue Brief for Congress RL32032, Streamlining Environmental Reviews of Highway and Transit Projects: Analysis of SAFETEA and Recent Legislative Activities. NEPA requires a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) "for all major federal actions 'significantly' affecting the environment." Projects for which the scope of the impact is unclear require an Environmental Assessment (EA), while the federal government may grant other projects an exclusion. Furthermore, according to CRS Issue Brief RL32454, Environmental Provisions in Surface Transportation Reauthorization Legislation: SAFETEA and TEA-LU, "any given transportation project may require compliance with a wide variety of legal requirements, enforceable by multiple agencies. For example, impacts of a highway project may trigger compliance with" such legislation as the Clean Air Act or the Endangered Species Act. Metropolitan areas must also look at the regional picture when planning transportation projects; under the Clean Air Act, many face "a temporary suspension of highway and transit funds unless they impose sharp reductions in vehicle, industrial, or other emissions" (RL32454). Despite these requirements, to date only a small minority of projects have undergone the full EIS assessment. According to RS20841, Environmental Streamlining Provisions in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century: Status of Implementation, "3% of all highway projects required an EIS, 7% required an EA, and 90% were classified as categorical exclusions."

Despite the relatively small number of projects forced to undergo a complete EIS, complaints about the length of the process have emanated from citizens, businesses, the media, and local government agencies. According to a 2001 study, "on average, the time to complete an EIS in the 1990s was 5.0 years" (RS20841). The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, or TEA21, passed in1998, provides for a streamlined review process, through "full and early participation by all relevant agencies" and concurrent reviews, while still providing comprehensive environmental protection (RS20841). As IB10032, Transportation Issues in the 108th Congress, explains, with automobile congestion a major national issue, the act also provided for a substantial increase in transportation funding.

Passed at a time in which increased automobile use, and the presence of larger vehicles, work in opposition to federal air quality standards, TEA21 also provided for the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program (CMAQ). The program works at "lowering the number of miles traveled by motor vehicles, and reducing congestion" according to RL32226, Highway and Transit Program Reauthorization Legislation in the 2nd Session, 108th Congress.

Faced with complaints that TEA21 was not being fully implemented, in May of 2003 Congress passed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003, or SAFETEA, which further limited judicial review and gave states greater authority. (RS20841). While Tea21 has technically expired, its provisions continue to operate through May 31, 2005 (RL32454). Bills currently being considered have called for replacing TEA21 altogether, establishing new regulations to further speed the environmental review process, and granting greater authority to state departments of transportation (RL32454).

The following case studies of highway projects indicate their breadth and complexity, and the controversy that surrounds them.

The Appalachian Development Highway Program

Highways may be built to link existing areas or to open up new ones. In the 1960s, one such project intended to alleviate poverty was the Appalachian Development Highway Program (ADHP). A 1964 report argued that, "that Appalachia's geographic isolation from both the prosperous adjacent eastern seaboard and the mid-west was the 'very basis' of its developmental lag." (Appalachian Development Highway Program (ADHP): An Overview) A highway and road system was intended to pass around or over the rugged mountain ranges, linking together isolated, undeveloped areas. This was road-building not to link already developed areas, but to stimulate development, including job opportunities and income.

Appalachian Development Highway System
Appalachian Development Highway System

Highway projects have often taken more time than anticipated, particularly since the 1970s with its increasing environmental concerns. As of "September 30, 1997, 2,258.8 miles comprising 75% of the planned corridor miles were open to traffic. Over 60% (894 miles) of the authorized miles of access roads had been completed." Yet the portion of the project remaining would traverse the most difficult terrain, at increasing expense, "with each $100 million funding approximately nine miles." Environmentalists also object to many of the projects, believing that they will damage rare species ( such as flying squirrels ( Still, TEA21 authorized a spike in funding to complete the project: $2.25 million over five years. By October of 2004, some 2,300 miles of the project were complete out of a total 3,090 eligible miles, with debate continuing over the remaining miles (ARC). On March 3, 2005, Senator Robert H. Byrd introduced a bill, S. 514, to complete the highway network, at a cost of $840 million each year from fy 2005 to 2010 (orator).

Case Studies in Streamlining

The National Highway Administration cites eight projects as important examples of successful environmental streamlining. All of these projects successfully completed a full EIS within 33 months. All coordinate interagency cooperation and public involvement early in the process, use lessons from prior projects extensively, and include a "Lessons Learned" section to facilitate future projects. Key lessons learned include capitalizing on earlier projects and beginning planning early, using both formal and informal methods, and pursuing political support from early in a project's genesis.

The US 95 Improvement Project is one story of environmental streamlining greatly shortening time of EIS preparation. Between 1970 and 1996, Clark County, Nevada experience a 300% growth in population. Population and economic growth created the need for improved transportation. In 1995, the county's major North-South route, US 95 (which extends from Mexico to Canada), was experiencing heavy congestion, with sections "expected to be operating at 50 to 75 percent above capacity" by 2020. The preferred alternative included widening several sections of highway, constructing HOV lanes and enhanced bus service, and improving freeway management. With the streamlining process, the review took place in under 30 months, and construction began in August 2002, with completion expected in 2006/7. Environmental impacts include displacement of some 942 people and up to 55 businesses. Noise impacts are to be mitigated through the construction of noise barriers. In 2002, however, the Sierra club filed a lawsuit claiming that the streamlined process had overlooked health risks, particularly "potential for increased cancer risks over the long term, due to increased air pollution." Still work on portions of the project continues.

Maryland's Intercounty Connector

Of several pending cases employing the environmental streamlining process (priority), Maryland's Intercounty Connector (ICC) is one of the more controversial. Designed to link the productive hi-tech corridors I-270 and I-95 that emanate from Washington, DC into the Maryland suburbs, the project has been discussed, in different versions, since 1950. While current road networks are clearly insufficient, ICC opponents claim that money for the project would be better spent on other transportation projects, such as a light rail line linking the populous inner suburbs. The road would also be built over environmentally sensitive areas, including interior forest and tributary heads to the Anacostia River. In 1998 then-governor Parris Glendenning, noted for his Smart-Growth orientation, killed the project, based on a draft EIS; in 2000 it was revived by newly elected Robert Ehrlich. A new, expedited draft EIS released in November of 2004 found that environmental mitigation measures would allow the project to proceed; not surprisingly, environmental groups have questioned the findings.

Future Speedup, Future Difficulties

Population and economic pressures will continue to generate increased demand for transportation networks. Because satisfying competing local interests is never easy, and doing so within a short timeframe is even more difficult, EIS reports will undoubtedly continue to generate controversy. While action always contains some risk to both human and natural environments, with growing population and economic pressures inaction also leads to increasing gridlock and inability to meet basic transportation needs. Federal agencies continue working to better coordinate national guidelines with local decision-making. While environmental and some urban planning groups call for increased use of other transportation modes, such as trains and trails, highways continue to be the major means of moving large numbers of people and goods, and undoubtedly will continue to be a source of controversy.

Written by Ethan Goffman

CSA provides complete abstracts of Environmental Impact Statements on transportation projects, energy, water, hazardous substances, and other environmental issues:
EIS: Digests of Environmental Impact Statements.