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Federal judge says sprawl, transit, equity must factor into highway decisions

Could impact Houston projects

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A Wisconsin court ruling may require planners across the country to publicly consider the effects on sprawl and transit before approving highway expansions, according to The Houston Chronicle:

A federal court judge in Milwaukee might have made it a little trickier to widen Texas roads.

Leaving aside whether that’s a good or bad thing, the ruling has certainly energized Houston-area people who push for more transit and less freeway building.

“It feels like it is almost the sky is the limit for our team on these kinds of issues to stop wasteful highway building and increase transit,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, program development and research director with Houston Tomorrow, an urban planning nonprofit.

Kaid Benfield with the Natural Resources Defense Council had a good breakdown of the issue on his blog.

In a suit brought by inner-city, minority plaintiffs, the US District Court in Milwaukee has indicated that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) cannot enlarge a major urban freeway connection without further study of the project’s impacts on transit-dependent populations and on regional suburban sprawl.  For now, the case is headed to mediation; but the court’s ruling on legal issues in the case, as articulated in an opinion signed by federal judge Lynn Adelman, is potentially significant to other highway-expansion controversies with similar circumstances.

First, the court found that, before going forward with plans for construction, the agencies must first study the impact of “continuing to expand highway capacity in the region while transit capacity declines.” Second, the agencies also must examine the potential regional effects of highway expansion on suburban sprawl.  The court rejected the agencies’ argument that they need only study the impacts in the specific area where the highway expansion was taking place, finding that it would defeat the “action-forcing” intent of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) if a piecemeal approach to highway projects and analysis allowed cumulative regional impacts to escape scrutiny.

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