STATEMENT OF HON. CAROL MURRAY, COMMISSIONER, NEW HAMPSHIRE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, CONCORD, NH
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and certainly, Senator Smith, Good Morning.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here today to talk about environmental streamlining. For the record I am Carol Murray, actually, let me correct that, for my Mom that I lost a month ago, I am Carol Ann Murray, the Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. The subject of environmental streamlining is a very important, difficult topic. One that has no silver bullet solution that I can identify and isolate.
I can readily identify the reason that I and my counterparts nationally consider this so significant. The public has asked the transportation agencies to provide this nation with the mobility critical for our quality of life and economic vitality. The same public also wants the environment preserved and protected. The only way to accomplish these twin goals is for transportation and environmental agencies to work cooperatively. This public looks to all these agencies to implement the policy direction provided by elected officials with an open, trusting, balanced, communicative spirit.
I am not convinced that the public’s vision, or that of their elected officials, is being implemented very well by the various public agencies involved. The concept of environmental streamlining was not conceived to put environmental preservation and enhancement as a secondary or minor interest in the development of public transportation projects, but rather to encourage early discussion, involvement and decision making by the agencies with environmental and transportation duties. If the public agencies could work to provide the best-balanced projects in a timely way, then the public’s voice is being heard.
Over the last two reauthorization bills, Congress set a new direction for transportation. Transportation agencies moved into a new era. With some resistance, we realized that mobility for the future was not just highways: choices in modes of transportation and connections between modes are now a focus. Congress also said that to develop the best projects for this country, the participation of the local communities, regional planning agencies and the public must be encouraged and their voice heeded.
This evolution in how state transportation departments work came hard to those of us used to doing designs by the book and approaching the public with our well designed, but off the shelf, standard highway solutions.
What we in the transportation business have found is that Congress was right in the policy direction they gave us. After a decade of increasingly successful implementation we are believers. We are cutting ribbons and celebrating projects that have been developed with more thoughtful consideration of the transportation users’ needs and the local communities’ vision for their future, and in balance with the natural and cultural environment they are built in.
I do believe that over the last two decades the transportation community has changed and become better. While I would like to say that we have got it all perfect, that would certainly not be true. We need to continue to listen, learn and, I think, we are ready to do that with an acceptance that was not there before ISTEA and the lessons learned since.
What is a frustrating is the reluctance of the environmental community to recognize this change. It is disheartening that the community has not championed and joined our early involvement and commitment to transportation project planning. We have found reluctance to engage in working toward a mobility solution that balances the various public needs in a fiscally responsible way.
You have all heard about the Interstate 93 widening project in New Hampshire and Senator Smith’s work to bring streamlining to a reality with this project. As agreed, policy level staff from all the public regulatory agencies met as decision points were approached. Early agreement was reached to operate in an open, trustful and professional manner.
The group has met a number of times over the past two years. The culmination of this work is the draft environmental statement to be published this week. Then on September 9, I received a letter from the EPA that discounts the work accomplished in the streamlining process. Primary reasons given were that only the regulatory agencies were involved, and not the private environmental groups and the 18 communities that may experience secondary growth pressure even though they are not directly on the Interstate. This letter came despite the four dozen public meetings held as this project has developed; with all meetings publicly notice well in advance, with individual notices to the specific environmental groups.
This project impacts an estimated 70 acres of wetland over 19 miles of widening of an existing Interstate highway. Proposed mitigation for this project includes 650 acres of land purchase and wetland creation at a cost estimated to be $15.0 million, plus a $3.0 million technical assistance program for local communities to assist in developing local land use regulations that reflect their future vision for their communities.
The proposed mitigation package was severely criticized in the letter from EPA because, and this is a quote, “while of importance to the towns, it does not have high ecological value”. The EPA letter also says that (again I quote) “current state and federal wetland regulations and typical zoning rules have generally not been effective…”
While the debate about local, state and federal roles in land use, transportation, and secondary impacts is an engaging debate, I believe that is a public policy decision that Congress, State Legislatures, municipalities and the public should decide, not government employees, particularly those far removed from the project area.
The EPA submits that a mitigation package of approximately 2300 acres at a cost of upwards of $50 million is needed. The reason cited is secondary impacts that may occur due to the project; not the direct impacts which they agree are of relatively minor consequence. Additionally, to their way of thinking, the highway widening should include the concurrent construction of transit options beyond the enhanced bus service already planned to be implemented and rail potential currently provided for in the project.
All these proposed environmental mitigation elements are, I think, good things. The question is whether or not it is the responsibility of this project to pay for all of them? And, in fact, because New Hampshire has done a very good job in providing a high quality of life in all arenas including environmental protection, mobility and economic prosperity, people will come here even without Interstate 93 being widened.
Why environmental streamlining? Because all agency implementers of elected officials’ laws need to work together to effectively and in a fiscally responsible way to respond to public needs in a balanced way.
The transportation agencies, after ISTEA and TEA-21, learned that we don’t know all the answers. The designers and builders of our Interstate highway system achieved a wonder, but in hindsight it might have been done differently. So Congress passed ISTEA and TEA-21. And now in 2002 it seems that the transportation projects in the environmental view are seen as a financial resource to implement conservation projects.
Early involvement in transportation project planning by all involved is needed. But, additionally, mutual respect for professional responsibilities, fiscal reality and, overall, an understanding that we need to make honest decisions that respects the public’s will as envisioned by our elected leaders.
The EPA letter that I mentioned earlier states that mitigation costs should be up to 20% of the total project cost. In a time when we are all struggling to fund the public’s transportation needs, a decision by a government employee to direct funding to a nontransportation purpose is inappropriate.
What do we need to meet the public’s goal of providing mobility for quality of life and economic vitality while protecting and preserving the environment? This is best achieved if the principals envisioned by Congress for streamlining are implemented.
Above all, we need a process that includes early involvement that is consistent, trust based and cooperative; a process that is streamlined, effective, balanced, public transportation delivery which unfortunately is not what we are experiencing today.
Hopefully the next reauthorization will produce a streamlined process that follows the direction of Congress and meets the public’s expectations.
I am happy to answer any questions, and again I thank you for this opportunity.