Metropolis

The Perverse Reason It’s Easier to Build New Highways Than New Subways

The environment?!

A Seattle light rail station with a train zooming by
Now consider two dozen alternative routes. John Moore/Getty Images

More than two years have passed since the New York State Legislature approved congestion pricing for New York City, a policy to charge drivers entering the Manhattan core. Little has happened in the interim. Though many office workers have not returned, the streets are once again jammed with personal cars—flustering local businesses, slowing ambulances, and filling the streets with exhaust.

Earlier this week, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority—the agency that would run the congestion pricing program and direct its revenue toward mass transit—announced that the tolls would require another 16 months of environmental review. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio responded, “That’s ridiculous. If they want to know the environmental impact, I’ll tell them: It will reduce congestion, it will reduce pollution.”

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The mayor’s logic will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the construction of an American mass transit project, where you practically have to pulp a California redwood just to print the environmental impact statement required by the National Environmental Policy Act. When Bay Area Rapid Transit General Manager Bob Powers said earlier this year that it would take a billion dollars to get through the environmental review to build a second subway tunnel beneath San Francisco Bay, that sounded sadly believable. BART board member Rebecca Saltzman clarified that figure includes all planning for the tunnel, but she said the point remains valid: “When [these laws] were written, the focus was on water quality and wildlife habitat, and now we need to look at everything through the lens of climate change.”

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Instead, on the eve of a once-in-a-generation federal investment in infrastructure, 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. The result: delays and high costs that perpetuate the dominance of ice cap–melting SUVs in American transportation policy.

In July, the Eno Center for Transportation published a study on the problems with American mass transit construction. The 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. (If you so much as include projects in the New York region, the nation’s largest transit ridership hub, the premium for underground building rises to 250 percent of our peers’.)

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Environmental reviews are part of the problem, the report concludes. 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. In Seattle, for example, the final environmental impact statement for Sound Transit’s East Link light rail project included a study of what it would be like to build 24 alternative routes! Planning 24 projects to build one helps guard against lawsuits, but it is also an enormous waste of time, talent, and money.

“A transit agency is designed to operate transit, not build transit projects,” said Paul Lewis, the Eno Center’s director of policy. “And then once a decade we tell all the staff, ‘Go ahead and build a $3 billion megaproject.’ There’s not necessarily the support or staff in that agency.”

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In Northern Virginia, for example, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is constructing the Silver Line extension, connecting D.C.’s Metro to Dulles Airport and communities west of the city. The MWAA has never built a major capital project beyond the confines of the airports it controls. It has help from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, which has 65 professional staff. By contrast, the Virginia Department of Transportation, which builds the state’s highways, has more than 7,500 professional staff.

“Engineers on highway projects, it was very methodical,” Lewis summed up. In contrast, “folks who work on transit projects talk about environmental review like they talk about a murder mystery.” A twist lurks around every corner.

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Other countries have tried to correct for this imbalance by favoring ideas whose big-picture environmental benefits are self-evident. In 2008, for example, the Canadian province of Ontario created a faster environmental review for transit that doesn’t require analyzing alternatives. That procedure assumes it’s up to the transit agency to pick the best route before the environmental analysis begins. After all, most transit projects—unlike highways—run through areas that are already densely settled and have a lot of drivers who can be converted into riders.

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In the U.S., there’s no such special treatment. Instead, the big-picture environmental reason to invest in transit—to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—was not even part of NEPA assessments until 2016 (before being watered down by President Donald Trump, and reinstated by President Joe Biden).

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Highway projects derive a few advantages from this arrangement beyond their supervisors’ superior technical expertise. For one thing, highways are so much a part of the status quo that their logic is seldom questioned. In Austin, Texas, for example, the city’s planned transit expansion has a $300 million budget line to fight displacement that happens as an indirect consequence of construction. There’s no such obligation for the $5 billion state project to widen Interstate 35.

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Environmental reviews may dissuade state DOTs from trying to pave over pristine ecosystems, but they pose little challenge for typical highways. And 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.

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Consider Portland’s own freeway expansion project, which would add lanes to Interstate 5 in the city’s Rose Quarter neighborhood. The state says the project will lower local air pollution because cars will move faster through the neighborhood. But those models are predicated on the assumption that more and more people will drive regardless—in fact, this increased travel is the very outcome that freeway widening ensures.

It’s not just transit that gets hurt by these faulty assumptions. For years, traffic engineers have been asked to weigh in on how, say, a new apartment building will affect “level of service,” or in layman’s terms, traffic. New buildings in dense neighborhoods obviously score poorly on this metric, which favors low-density, greenfield construction—even though sprawl certainly produces more driving, in the end, than apartments near downtown. This hyperlocal impact is often invoked by neighbors to block new housing under state environmental law, an approach that misses the forest for the trees, sometimes literally.

In 2020, California decided to exempt sustainable local transportation projects from undergoing analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act for the next four years. Federal NEPA rules still apply, but it’s not hard to imagine such a policy being established nationally. As the Eno report demonstrates, there are plenty of problems with the way this country builds transit, but clear-cutting forests, polluting waterways, and paving over sensitive bird habitats are not among them.

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