At an upcoming public meeting in Arlington, the Virginia Department of Transportation will be presenting environmental review documents to justify widening I-66 from two lanes to three lanes for significant portions between Rosslyn and West Falls Church. The environmental review documents are in the form of a Categorical Exclusion, which under NEPA means that the widening would not have a significant effect on the environment, significantly reducing public involvement in the environmental review process. I believe that this exclusion is based on a misapplication of a FHWA regulation, treating an extended third lane of the interstate the same as a much shorter "weave lane" that is used to bridge between an entrance lane and an exit lane. I encourage interested people to attend the public meeting and object to the project on these grounds.
The public meeting is Monday, October 27 at 7pm at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, VA.
Federal Environmental Policy and the I-66 Project
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) controls environmental review for Federal projects. It's what causes agencies to have to produce Environmental Impact Statements, Environmental Assessments, and to seek public comment on such projects. A much abbreviated environmental review is available for projects that meet certain criteria. This is called a Categorical Exemption, defined as follows:
“Categorical exclusion” means a category of actions which do not
individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human
environment and which have been found to have no such effect
in procedures adopted by a Federal agency in implementation of
these regulations (Sec. 1507.3) and for which, therefore, neither an
environmental assessment nor an environmental impact statement
is required (emphasis added).
And "effects" is defined as follows:
(a) Direct effects, which are caused by the action and
occur at the same time and place.
(b) Indirect effects, which are caused by the action and
are later in time or farther removed in distance, but are
still reasonably foreseeable. Indirect effects may include
growth inducing effects and other effects related to
induced changes in the pattern of land use, population
density or growth rate, and related effects on air and
water and other natural systems, including ecosystems (emphasis added).
I heard back from the District Environmental Manager from VDOT concerning the use of a Categorical Exemption (CE) for the I-66 spot improvements project:
For federally funded transportation projects in Virginia, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) makes the formal decision about the type and final approval of environmental documents prepared on their behalf by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) staff. With preliminary environmental impact information compiled through the State Environmental Review Process, VDOT coordinated the project scope with FHWA for concurrence on the appropriate level of environmental documentation required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (PDF Citizen's Guide). Under its authority promulgated by 23 CFR, Part 771 – Environmental Impact and Related Procedures, FHWA determined and approved a CE under Section 771.117 category d(1). For your convenience, I am attaching a link to FHWA’s regulation for implementing NEPA: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/hep/23cfr771.htm. Please note that a CE-level of NEPA documentation does not exempt a project from further environmental review; the same level of analysis is employed in the preparation of any environmental document during the NEPA process.
I'll include the relevant part of the regulation cited above:
Additional actions which meet the criteria for a CE in the CEQ regulations (40 CFR 1508.4) and paragraph (a) of this section may be designated as CEs only after Administration approval. The applicant shall submit documentation which demonstrates that the specific conditions or criteria for these CEs are satisfied and that significant environmental effects will not result. Examples of such actions include but are not limited to:
- Modernization of a highway by resurfacing, restoration, rehabilitation, reconstruction, adding shoulders, or adding auxiliary lanes (e.g., parking, weaving, turning, climbing).
The I-66 project doesn't seem to fit any of those except possibly adding an auxiliary lane. If it were a shorter project, this might be considered a "weaving lane", which is a lane between an entrance and an exit ramp that allows oncoming and outgoing traffic to merge across each other. However, the three spot improvement sections are 1.06, 1.4 and 1.6 miles long each, much more than enough length for any weaving lane that I'm familiar with. I'm going to ask my friend who's a traffic engineer.
I recommend that anyone attending the public meeting to concentrate their comments on the idea that the environmental review appears to be cut short by inappropriately considering these to be short, limited improvements as opposed to a third lane construction for an interstate highway.