Case Law Updates on the Environment (CLUE)
Case Law Update Details
Lakes and Parks Alliance v. Metropolitan Council
U.S. District Court - Minnesota
Southwest Light Rail Transit
This case involved a proposed transit project, known as the Southwest Light Rail, which would connect downtown Minneapolis to the southwestern Twin Cities. The project was sponsored by the Metropolitan Council (“Met Council”), a regional transportation planning organization. Under state law, the Met Council was required to obtain the consent of each municipality through which the transit line would run - a process known as “municipal consent.” Because the project was to be built with federal funds, NEPA review was required. The FTA served as federal lead agency in the NEPA process. After issuing a DEIS, FTA announced that a Supplemental DEIS (SDEIS) would be prepared to address potential impacts resulting from several design refinements. While the SDEIS was in progress, the Met Council undertook the municipal consent process and succeeded in obtaining the consent of all six local governments through which the project would pass. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the SDEIS was still in preparation; therefore, no FEIS or ROD had been issued.
The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against FTA and the Met Council, while the NEPA process was still under way, claiming that the municipal consent process violated NEPA by effectively pre-determining the outcome of the NEPA process. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that the municipal consent process violated 40 C.F.R. § 1506.1, which states that until the NEPA process is concluded, “no action concerning the proposal shall be taken which would ... [l]imit the choice of reasonable alternatives.” In an earlier decision (issued March 6, 2015), the court had dismissed the NEPA claims against FTA, finding those claims to be premature, but allowed the NEPA claims to proceed against Met Council. In this decision, issued on August 4, 2015, the court found that Met Council had not violated NEPA by engaging in the municipal consent process.
Predetermination. The court observed that the key question in the case was whether the Met Council - through the municipal consent process - had “irreversibly and irretrievably committed” to a specific route, “such that the pending federal environmental review is nothing more than a fait accompli and any attempt to obtain relief after the review is complete would be in vain.” The court concluded that the plaintiff “has not yet shown” that the Met Council had irreversibly and irretrievably committed itself to selecting a specific route. In reaching this conclusion, the court found that “the Met Council’s activities may express a preference for a certain route, but they do not unequivocally ‘pre-commit’ either the Met Council or the FTA to that route, with no way to reverse course and put the work the agencies have done to use for a different approach.”
Nonetheless, the court also stated that it “remains concerned that the Met Council has done more than express a preferred alternative, and has ‘gone too far’ and has effectively committed itself to a specific route.” Therefore, while the court did not grant summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, it also refused to grant summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Instead, the case remained pending while the NEPA process continued.
The court closed its opinion by cautioning the Met Council and FTA to ensure that predetermination does not occur:
“The LPA may not have met its summary judgment burden at this point, but the record—specifically the negotiation process and agreements between the Met Council and various cities and other public entities, and public statements regarding those agreements—shows that, throughout much of this process, the Met Council has had a clear favorite route for the [project]. While the agency in charge can state a subjective preference, the unique nature of the municipal consent process in Minnesota for light rail projects, and the significant drumbeat of support the Met Council assembled for a single route, certainly comes close to having the practical effect of limiting the available options, such that the remaining federal environmental review is meaningless. Indeed, by signing an agreement with St. Louis Park that all but guarantees freight rail will stay in the Kenilworth Corridor, the Met Council has come dangerously close to impermissibly prejudicing the ongoing environmental review process. Given the importance of a searching environmental analysis of each of the available options, the remaining steps in the process of securing municipal consent and finalizing environmental review -- by both the Met Council and the FTA -- should provide that searching analysis in order to comply with NEPA’s twin aims of informing decisionmakers and involving the public.”