HonoluluTraffic.com v. Federal Transit Administration (9th Cir. 2014) __F.3d __ (Case No. 13-15277)
The litigation involved a challenge to a 20-mile, high-speed rail project that would traverse from the western portion of Oahu through the downtown area of Honolulu, Hawaii. After considering various long-range alternatives for federally funded transportation projects, the city of Honolulu ultimately focused on a “Fixed Guideway” public transport system for the project. The project was designed to improve transportation and relieve traffic congestion in Honolulu – a persistent problem and controversial topic in Hawaii and on the island of Oahu in particular. According to the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, Honolulu is the second-most congested metropolitan area in the nation.
Plaintiffs were a consortium of interest groups and individuals opposing the project. They filed the action in 2011 against FTA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the city and county of Honolulu, and various federal and local administrators. Plaintiffs raised challenges under the NEPA and other federal laws. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on the NEPA claims and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
Plaintiffs’ challenges under NEPA were directed principally at the choice of the steel-wheel-on-steel-rail Fixed Guideway system for the project. Plaintiffs claimed that the defendants unreasonably restricted the project’s purpose and need and did not consider all reasonable alternatives as required under NEPA and its regulations.
The court first addressed Plaintiffs’ argument that the project objectives stated in the EIS were too narrow. Plaintiffs argued that the objectives were so narrowly defined that only one alternative would accomplish them, and therefore, there was no real consideration of alternatives. The Ninth Circuit disagreed. The court noted that the project objectives, as stated as the purpose and need statement in the EIS, were defined in accordance with the statutorily mandated transportation plan that preceded the EIS – the 2004 Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, Regional Transportation Plan (“2004 ORTP”). The 2004 ORTP had concluded that a high-capacity, high-speed transit project connecting west Oahu with downtown Honolulu was necessary to implement Oahu’s land use policies. It also identified the Fixed Guideway system as a central component of that plan. The court held that, viewed in its statutory context, the project’s objectives were not so narrowly defined that only one alternative would accomplish them. The statement of purpose and need was broad enough to allow the agency to assess various routing options and technologies for a high-capacity, high-speed transit project. The Ninth Circuit, therefore, agreed with the district court’s conclusion that “because the statement of purpose and need did not foreclose all alternatives, and because it was shared by federal legislative purposes, it was reasonable.”
The court next addressed Plaintiffs’ claim that the EIS did not properly consider all reasonable alternatives and should have considered alternatives that the state had earlier rejected. Early in the process, the city had prepared an Alternatives Assessment (AA) to narrow the various alternatives that would be included in the EIS. The Ninth Circuit noted that an AA may be used as part of the NEPA process as long as it meets certain requirements. Because those requirements were satisfied, the court found no problem with the AA. The court also noted that alternatives that were previously rejected by an agency in prior studies do not need to be discussed in an EIS. According to the court, Plaintiffs’ real quarrel was not with the use of an AA generally, but rather that the process failed to consider Plaintiffs’ proposed three-lane Managed Lanes Alternative (a new roadway for busses and other high-occupancy vehicles). A similar alternative, however, had been considered and rejected in the AA for cost reasons. The court determined that the cost analysis in the AA was reasonable and that the three-lane Managed Lanes Alternative would be even more costly than the alternative rejected in the AA. Therefore, the court held that three-lane Managed Lanes Alternative did not need to be included in the EIS.
Plaintiffs’ final argument was that the defendants had improperly excluded a light-rail alternative from the EIS. The court determined, however, that the defendants properly relied on the AA to reject alternatives including light-rail. Ultimately, the court held that the EIS’s identification of project objectives and analysis of alternatives satisfied NEPA’s requirements.