Over the next 10 years, the Texas Department of Transportation plans to spend more than $74 billion on new roads and highway construction across Texas. It recently updated its plan, much of it aimed at relieving congestion as the Texas population continues to swell. But if the past is any indication, despite the expected displacement of homes, businesses, green space and more, the impact on the environment won’t be much of an issue, at least not for TxDOT.
Austin-based journalist Megan Kimble has been looking into the large number of TxDOT projects that have been greenlit without full environmental review. It’s an issue that has some activists turning to the courts. She joined Texas Standard to talk about her latest reporting in Grist, a nonprofit newsroom focused on climate solutions.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: According to activists, TxDOT is obscuring the full impact of projects when it comes to the environment. Could you tell us more about what exactly is happening?
Megan Kimble: Yeah. So TxDOT receives federal funding, and any agency that receives federal funding, according to the National Environmental Policy Act, has to do an environmental review of how its projects impact the human and natural environment. And there are three ways to do that, different levels of environmental review based on a project’s perceived impact. And the highest one is what’s called an environmental impact statement.
So listeners might be familiar with a proposed I-35 expansion through Austin. There’s three segments. In the central segment, TxDOT is doing what’s called an environmental impact statement, which is looking at the comprehensive review of how that project is going to impact the human and built environment: displacements, right away taken, lanes added, etc. For the north and south segments of the highway, TxDOT did what’s called an environmental assessment, which is a lesser environmental review, looking at the impacts of that project. And then they issued what’s called a finding of “no significant impact” for those two segments.
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So TxDOT is doing the review and also coming up with the ultimate finding of “no significant environmental impact”?
Correct. And so what that means is that they’re saying these projects don’t have a significant impact on the environment and that requires less public involvement, less review, less analysis, and they can proceed with construction. And TxDOT has a unique arrangement, along with seven other states, where they can self-certify their own projects. So usually other states, the federal government, will say, okay, we agree with your finding of “no significant impact.” But because of a program that was started in 2014, TxDOT is allowed to just approve their own finding of “no significant impact” and proceed with construction.
You mentioned I-35, and obviously that seems to have been perpetually under construction for as long as anyone can remember. But what you write about sort of suggests that this isn’t just about I-35, that we’re seeing this statewide?
Right. So that’s a useful example. But that’s happening across the state, that TxDOT is doing environmental reviews for its proposed highways and then issuing findings of “no significant impacts” — people call these FONSIs — across the state, project after project after project. So this activist, you know, saw that that FONSI was issued in Austin and said ‘hey, I wonder how often this is happening across Texas?’ It turns out it’s happening extremely frequently. So 130 projects since 2015 have received FONSIs, while only six have received full environmental reviews.
So that begs the question: Do those projects actually have “no significant impact”? And what he found is cumulatively they consume thousands of acres of land, will displace hundreds of homes, and will add more carbon to the atmosphere as more people drive.
You mentioned that TxDOT does self-reviews of these projects. Is there anybody who TxDOT has to answer to on that? Do they have to explain their finding to the federal government, for example?
No. So the way that the federal government has sort of set up the program, that compliance happens through the courts. So if people disagree with these FONSIs, they are welcome to sue TxDOT. And indeed, they are. The Federal Highway Administration does audits of TxDOT to make sure that they are complying, but essentially there is no federal oversight. And so that’s now, I think, on the table — should that arrangement continue?
Do you have a sense that this particular lawsuit that we’ve been talking about here related to I-35 could have a broader impact on TxDOT’s ambitious plans over the next 10 years?
I don’t think so. No. I mean, the lawsuit that has been filed is pretty narrowly focused on what’s called the legal segmentation. So the plaintiffs are arguing that TxDOT illegally segmented I-35 into three sections instead of looking at the impact of the full project, the full 22-mile project. So that’s a pretty narrow, I think, lawsuit.
And I think the hope is that across the state, you know, there are people in Houston, people in Dallas, people in Austin trying to fight these expansions. And so potentially that that activism might get TxDOT to think about its environmental reviews differently. But I think the governor, particularly Gov. Greg Abbott, has really made congestion relief a priority. And so TxDOT is following that mandate.