Highway J Citizens Group v. United States Department of Transportation, No. 17-1036 (7th Cir. 2018)Annotate this Case
Wisconsin proposes to renovate 7.5 miles of Highway 164 (formerly Highway J), a two-lane Washington County road, with repaving, reconstruction near hill crests to improve visibility, widening lanes and shoulders, updating guardrails, and adding rumble strips, turn, and bypass lanes. A 141-page environmental report concluded that the renovation would not cause any significant environmental effects but would reduce the accident and injury rate. Accidents are 63% more likely, per mile traveled, on this stretch than on Wisconsin’s other rural highways. The Federal Highway Administration approved the report and federal funding, finding an environmental impact statement unnecessary. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the rejection of opponents’ challenges. The National Environmental Policy Act requires an environmental impact statement for “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” 42 U.S.C. 4332(2)(C). Renovating 7.5 miles of an existing road does not stand out as a major cause of a significant effect and qualifies for the “categorical exclusion” of projects that are not “major.” The Administration (23 C.F.R. 771.117) believes that renovating existing roads generally does “not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment.” The years-long, 141-page study concluded that the project would not have a significant environmental effect; the state will create new wetlands at another site and no threatened or endangered species will be adversely affected.