Irvine & Conner Represents Coalition of Citizens in the NEPA Process

Today, on behalf of a coalition of local organizations focused on quality of life in Houston, Irvine & Conner presented the Houston District of the Texas Department of Transportation with a comment letter in response to the proposed highway expansion along I-45 from Beltway 8 to the heart of downtown. The project is commonly known as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project and identified several shortcomings and areas for improvement in the Texas Department of Transportation’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project

This project involves highway construction along the I-45 North corridor from near downtown Houston to Beltway 8 North, Beltway 8 North from I-45 North to the Hardy Toll Road, the Hardy Toll Road from I-610 North Loop to Beltway 8 North, I-610 North Loop from I-45 North to the Hardy Toll Road, and portions of I-10 and US 59 near downtown Houston. These routes pass by many important park resources and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Together, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration have initiated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process in order to conduct an environmental impact study of the project. The main objectives of the NEPA process are to evaluate and assess the needs of the areas the project impacts, and identify alternatives for how the project may proceed and how specific environmental impacts can be diminished.

The National Environmental Policy Act

The NEPA process applies when a federal agency proposes taking a major federal action. Importantly, like many regulatory processes, it often involves a comment period that invites interested groups and individuals to comment and object to proposed agency decisions. If the proposed agency action will significantly alter the quality of the human environment around the project, the agency is required to promulgate environmental impact statements (EIS). First, the agency will publish a Notice of Intent in the Federal Register, which informs the public that an environmental analysis is being conducted. Then, a DEIS is published and the public is invited to review and comment upon it for a minimum of 45 days. Finally, after considering comments submitted during the comment period, the agency will promulgate an FEIS, after which the agency is generally required to wait another 30 days before making a final decision on the action proposed.

Section 4(f)

In addition to complying with NEPA requirements, federally-funded highway projects must also comply with Section 4(f). Under Section 4(f), TxDOT may not spend federal funds on highway projects that will use property occupied by public parks or recreational areas, except in limited circumstances and only after meeting specific criteria. Specifically, unless TxDOT, with the agreement of local officials, determines the use of a Section 4(f)-protected property will have only a “de minimis” impact, TxDOT first must determine that no feasible and prudent avoidance alternative exists. If no feasible and prudent alternative exists, Section 4(f) requires TxDOT to select the alternative that will cause “the least overall harm” and engage in “all possible planning” to minimize harm to the park or recreation area resulting from the proposed use.

Irvine & Conner’s Comment Letter

The law firm of Irvine & Conner was jointly retained by a coalition of quality of life organizations concerned that the DEIS inadequately addressed many major issues that stand to be affected by the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. Accordingly, after much review of the underlying issues, a comment letter was sent to TxDOT on July 27, 2017. The comment letter expressed concerns in nine major areas potentially affected by the project:

  • Parks (Section 4(f))
  • Noise Impacts
  • Visual Impacts
  • Community Resources and Environmental Justice
  • Air Quality
  • Water Resources
  • Stormwater and Floodplain Issues
  • Climate Change

During the NEPA process, comment letters are essential to influencing agency decision-making and creating a more robust agency record in case the agency’s actions ever have to be challenged in court. Given the multi-generational impact that a project of this size and scope has on Houstonians, the comment letter emphasized early mitigation of unavoidable impacts and sought to identify both unaddressed problems and concrete solutions for TxDOT to consider in its review.

Irvine & Conner is happy to talk to advocacy groups concerned about environmental impact studies or agency decisions in any stage of rule-making. Please call our office at 713.533.1704.



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