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Aloha to All That

It may be a sign of the times that a state is so open about giving a single business a pass on an impact review.


Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

For decades, federal and state environmental laws have required governments to study the consequences of development projects. Those studies have slowed down and delayed what some view as economic progress. So it shouldn't be too startling that Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle called a special legislative session last fall to override state environmental rules. Her aim: to keep a new, 866-passenger Superferry plying the ocean waters that separate the state's tropical islands.

Her request came three months after Hawaii's Supreme Court overturned a state decision to allow operators to launch Superferry service without conducting an environmental impact review. Justices agreed with the Hawaii Sierra Club and local protesters that trips should be suspended until the state determined how to keep ferry operations from polluting harbors and killing humpback whales that were colliding with the vessel. Lingle's administration persuaded legislators to let the 350-foot-long catamaran keep running -- so long as it met 40 interim guidelines -- while state scientists review potential environmental damage.

There may be no precedent for a governor and legislature stepping in so openly to give a single business a pass from complying with the country's landmark environmental statutes. Like the federal government's National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 and other similar state laws, Hawaii's 1974 act orders government agencies to take pollution and natural resource damage into account before allowing significant projects to proceed. The state highway department gripes that reviews by environmental regulators, cumbersome public-participation processes, and legal second-guessing needlessly inflate project costs and stall beneficial transportation projects for years.

Hawaii Superferry executives insisted that waiting out a full-scale review for two or more years would effectively scuttle the venture by ensuring that financing deadlines would be missed. Governor Lingle, along with her state transportation department, grows impatient when faced with delays for faster, more convenient transportation.

No other state, of course, is going to find its leaders arguing over the environmental consequences of ferries that hop from island to island. But in a curious way, the dispute in Hawaii reflects a political conflict that has been going on across the country for decades: the rift between the transportation establishment, on the one hand, and environmentalists on the other. Transportation departments everywhere have had formidable clout with governors and legislators, and their own source of money, thanks to the highway trust fund.

Meanwhile, the top ranks of DOTs remain filled with civil engineers who build their careers by designing and constructing projects. For good reasons, transportation planners make convenience and safety overriding priorities. Too often, though, they treat environmental impacts as an afterthought. State natural resource and pollution-control agencies have fought many losing battles with DOT engineers.

In a few states, top-ranking engineers have recognized they can save time and money by incorporating environmental concerns in early versions of project blueprints. Florida, Vermont and Montana have redesigned projects to accommodate wildlife and reduce damage to watersheds. In drafting plans for rebuilding heavily traveled Interstate 90 across Snoqualmie Pass, Washington state's DOT worked closely with conservation groups to integrate wildlife passages and reconnect migration routes up and down the Cascade Mountains. "It's the only road project that I know of in the United States," says Douglas MacDonald, the former Washington DOT secretary, "that has the support of the Sierra Club."

MacDonald, a lawyer, previously supervised the Boston Harbor cleanup as head of the Massachusetts water resource agency. In six years in the Washington DOT post, he worked closely with the state Department of Ecology regulators to prevent costly delays by incorporating storm-water controls, wetland preservation, and other environmental features early in project designs. MacDonald stepped down last summer, but environmental specialists have started rising through the WashDOT ranks. In most states, however, they're still confined to lower-ranking project staffs.

The top-level hierarchies in DOTs are now forced to look at how transportation plans engender suburban sprawl. Still, MacDonald says, "state DOTs have a long, long way to go" in building a lasting environmental ethic.

That's as true in the middle of the Pacific as it is in the middle of the continental United States.

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