Reviewing Rail Documents

The standard procedure for planning a rail project requires transit agencies, metropolitan planning organizations, or whoever is the lead planning bureaucracy to first go through a scoping process, which determines what will be studied in the plan. Based on this scoping analysis, the agency then writes an alternatives analysis, which currently is wrapped into the draft environmental impact statement (EIS). Next, the agency writes a final environmental impact statement. Public comment is invited during each of these stages. Finally, the agency writes a record of decision selecting the final alternative. This may be included with or written after the final EIS.

You should respond to each of these three stages: the scoping analysis, draft EIS, and final EIS. The agency is required to reply to your responses, and if the replies are unsatisfactory, that could be grounds for delaying the project.

The Scoping Analysis

If an agency is going to spend the money required to write an environmental impact statement, it has already decided it wants to build rail. Its goal will be to make rail appear as attractive as possible, so it will try to avoid better alternatives or analyzing any of the real costs of rail. Your goal should make its decision appear as embarrassing as possible, so you need to insist that a wide range of alternatives and a thorough analysis of the costs be considered.

A wide range of alternatives could include:

  • Running bus-rapid transit (buses on higher frequencies with fewer stops than ordinary buses) on existing streets
  • Building new highway lanes open to all users including transit buses and running BRT on those lanes
  • Building new highway lanes open to high-occupancy vehicles, including transit buses, for free and low-occupancy vehicles willing to pay a toll (high-occupancy/toll or HOT lanes) and running BRT on those lanes
  • Building new highway lanes open only to high-occupancy vehicles including transit buses and running BRT on those lanes
  • Building exclusive busways or bus lanes open only to transit vehicles and running BRT on those lanes
  • Building rail transit

This is a truly wide range of alternatives and any plan that leaves out some of these alternatives will fail to find the most cost-effective transportation solution in that corridor.

Second, your comments should insist that planners calculate the number of hours of congestion under each alternative and calculate the cost-effectiveness of each alternative by several measures:

  • The cost per hour of time saved through reduced congestion
  • The cost per new transit rider
  • The cost per transit rider

Current rules only require transit agencies to calculate the cost per transit rider. But a transit project that doesn’t attract new transit riders or reduce congestion is not very valuable, so these measures should be calculated as well.

You should also ask planners to use reference forecasting in their analysis of costs and benefits. This means that, if light-rail plans have a history of underestimating costs by 40 percent, then the costs used in the alternatives analysis must be adjusted upwards by 40 percent. Similarly, if rail plans have a history of overestimating ridership by 50 percent, then ridership calculations should be adjusted downwards by 50 percent.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement

Draft EISs can be thousands of pages long, especially when the technical supporting documents are included in the count. Don’t be overwhelmed by this. There are really only a few sections worth reviewing in detail.

In reviewing the DEIS, the first thing you should note is whether planners considered a full range of alternatives as outlined above and whether they calculated cost effectiveness using all of the above measures. The truth is that, in most circumstances, the most cost-effect alternative by any measure will be bus-rapid transit on existing streets. For relieving congestion, the next-most cost-effective alternative is likely to be either building new lanes open to all traffic or building high-occupancy/toll lanes. For attracting new transit riders, any bus alternative will be more cost-effective than any rail alternative, and it is likely that cost-effectiveness will decline as alternatives get more expensive.

Beyond cost-effectiveness, the parts of the DEIS you should focus on include transportation and environmental effects. Under transportation effects:

  • How many transit riders will each alternative attract?
  • How many new transit riders will each alternative attract?
  • How much time will the transportation improvements save transit riders?
  • How much time will the transportation improvements save auto users?
  • What do the transportation improvements do to the levels of service in the corridor (levels of service is a letter grade, A through F, indicating congestion levels; it can also be expressed by volume to capacity ratios with F meaning roads that are over capacity, E meaning roads that are more than 90 percent capacity, and so forth)

If these things are in the DEIS itself, they can sometimes be found in a traffic analysis technical document that is usually prepared for the DEIS.

Under environmental effects, pay particular attention to:

  • Energy–Do the transportation improvements save energy?
  • Pollution–Do the transportation improvements reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions?
  • Construction impacts–How much energy is required and pollution emitted during construction, and if transit operations save energy, how many years of savings will be needed to offset the energy required for construction?

In assessing energy and pollution, DEIS writers make two common mistakes. First, they typically assume that automobiles in the future will consume the same energy and emit the same pollution and greenhouse gases as automobiles today. In fact, autos are rapidly becoming more energy efficient, and the rate is predictable because of federal requirements that the average new car in 2025 get 54.5 miles per gallon. Since greenhouse gas emissions are a strict function of fuel consumption, the rate of improvement there is predictable as well.

Second, planners often underestimate the energy used by and pollution from rail transit. Most electricity in the United States is generated by burning fossil fuels, which emits pollution and greenhouse gases at predictable rates. Planners also often fail to account for the losses in energy during electrical generation and transmission. One kilowatt-hour required to power a light-rail train is equal to 3,412 British Thermal Units (BTUs) of energy. But to deliver that 3,412 BTUs to the rail line, power plants must burn 10,339 BTUs of coal or other fossil fuels. By failing to account for these losses in energy, rail planners often greatly underestimate the energy requirements and pollution from rail transit.

You can use the Department of Energy’s state electricity profiles to determine how much of the electricity in your state comes from burning fossil fuels. Select your state using the “Other state profiles” drop-down menu on the right and then scroll down and click on table 5 to download a table showing the sources of energy from 1990 to 2012.

Other questions the DEIS may answer for you include:

  • Will the transportation improvements need new right-of-way and, if so, will they use eminent domain to get that right-of-way?
  • How much of the capital cost will be covered by borrowing funds and what will be the total financial charges for those loans?
  • Does the financial plan look far enough ahead to foresee the costs of replacing or rehabilitating the transportation improvements as they wear out (generally about 30 years for rail lines)?
  • If the rail plans expect to use rails or rights-of-way currently owned by private railroads, have they negotiated costs with the railroads? (Generally the answer at this stage is no, which often contributes to cost overruns as the railroads demand more money than the planners optimistically assumed.)

The Final Environmental Impact Statement

The final EIS usually jettisons all of the alternatives considered in the draft except for the preferred alternative, a no-build alternative, and sometimes a “transportation systems management” (TSM) alternative, which generally means some bus improvements short of actually running bus-rapid transit on existing streets. Under new FTA rules, even the TSM alternative may be excluded from the final EIS.

The final EIS also updates capital costs and other effects for the preferred alternative. If these are significantly different from those projected in the DEIS, you should insist that the agency must reanalyze all of the alternatives in light of the new cost projections. If rail costs increased by 20 percent, you can argue, then maybe the bus alternatives make more sense after all.

Going to Court

If the agency has failed to consider a wide range of alternatives or has failed to properly assess the costs and impacts of its plans, you are entitled to go to court to demand that the environmental impact statement be rewritten. In doing so, you can rely on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires environmental impact statements, and current federal transportation law (MAP-21 as of this writing), which defines the criteria used for funding rail projects.

However, going to court is a very expensive process and the results are highly uncertain. For a lot less money, you can instead go to the court of public opinion. That means that you issue press releases at each stage of the process (scoping, DEIS, FEIS) outlining your concerns and goals. You write op eds, and encourage other people to write letters to the editor of local papers. For more ideas, see the section on Fighting Rail.