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Case Law Updates on the Environment (CLUE)

Case Law Update Details

Case Title

Crenshaw Subway Coalition v. LACMTA

Case No.

2015 WL 6150847

Court

U.S. District Court - California

State

California

Date

9/23/2015

Project

Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor

Project Type

Transit

Project Description

This case involved a proposal to construct an 8.5–mile light-rail line connecting two existing subway lines in Los Angeles. The proposed line would bring subway service to the Crenshaw Transit Corridor, a north-south corridor that extends through much of Central Los Angeles. The project was intended to improve mobility in a congested corridor while also spurring economic development. FTA and the local transit agency, Metro, prepared a joint EIS/EIR under NEPA and CEQA. The Draft EIS/EIR considered a range of BRT and light-rail alternatives, and Metro then selected a light-rail alternative as the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA). The LPA included an at-grade segment along a portion of Crenshaw Boulevard known as Park Mesa Heights. After selecting the LPA, Metro prepared a separate analysis of a potential below-grade alignment in Park Mesa Heights in response to public comments opposing the at-grade alignment. Based on that additional analysis, FTA ultimately approved the project with the at-grade alignment.

Case Summary

The plaintiff, a non-profit group, filed suit under both NEPA and CEQA, claiming that the EIS did not adequately consider grade-separated alternatives, understated the impacts of at-grade alternatives, and did not sufficiently consider design changes made to the preferred alternative. The district court ruled in favor of FTA on all issues.

Key Holdings

NEPA

Screening of Alternatives.  The plaintiffs claimed that the alternatives analysis was inadequate because, while the EIS/EIR included four distinct alternatives, it did not include any alternative with an underground alignment on Crenshaw Boulevard in Park Mesa Heights.   The court noted that “If the excluded alternative—the underground PMH segment—is reasonable, then the range of alternatives presented and analyzed in the DEIS/R and FEIS/R is arguably inadequate.”  The court upheld FTA’s determination that a tunnel was not a reasonable alternative because Metro’s analysis showed that tunneling in this location was not justified under Metro’s grade-crossing policy.  The court also held that FTA had adequately documented its consideration of this alternative as part of its responses to comments, rather than addressing the alternative in the main body of the Draft EIS/EIR.  The court stated that “the FTA’s response, albeit brief, regarding the underground PMH segment was sufficient to satisfy its obligations under NEPA.”

Predetermination.  The plaintiffs also claimed that FTA the outcome of the grade-separation analysis for Park Mesa Heights was predetermined because it was performed after Metro had announced its LPA.  The court agreed that “skewing” analyses to achieve a predetermined outcome would violate NEPA, but held that held that the existence of a preference for a particular alternative did not mean that the outcome of the analysis was predetermined: “Predetermination is not shown simply because the agency’s planning, or internal or external negotiations, seriously contemplated, or took into account, the possibility that a particular environmental outcome would be the result of its NEPA review of environmental effects.”  (emphasis in original).

Consistency with Land Use Plans.  The plaintiffs argued that the EIS/EIR was inadequate because it did not analyze the project’s consistency with a local land use plan, known as the Community Plan.  They pointed to a comment from a local agency stating that “there could well be a question” as to whether the community’s long-term development potential is enhanced by the light-rail alternative.   The court held that the CEQ regulations (40 CFR 1502.16(c)) require only a discussion of inconsistency with local land use plans, and there was no evidence in this case that the light rail project was actually inconsistent with the local lands.  The court also held that, because the CEQ regulation only required a discussion of inconsistency with land use plans, it was not necessary to “address their purposes, specific policies, and how a proposed project might further them.”

Community Impacts.  The plaintiffs argued that the EIS/EIR did not sufficiently consider the project’s potential to divide the community by creating a barrier, as well as the project’s potential effects on parking, safety, and community revitalization efforts.  The court found that the EIS/EIR had addressed all of these issues in detail, and found the discussion sufficient to comply with NEPA.

Environmental Justice.  The EIS/EIR included an environmental justice analysis, which considered the project’s effects on low-income and minority communities.  The court noted that the Executive Order on environmental justice (E.O. 12898) does not create a right of judicial review.  But the court found that a plaintiff can bring a lawsuit under NEPA challenging the adequacy of the environmental justice analysis in a NEPA document.  The court then examined the environmental justice analysis in the EIS/EIR, focusing on the methodology for assessing the “proportionality” of impacts on low-income and minority communities.  The EIS/EIR found that impacts were not disproportionate because 94% of the affected area consisted of minority populations.  The court criticized this approach, holding that the “proper measure of comparison” when determining proportionality is “between the communities affected and unaffected by the Project.” However, the court found that, in their responses to comments, the agencies had considered the impacts and benefits of the project in a broader context by recognizing that “in planning transit projects to serve the access of minority communities, those very communities may bear the construction and other Project-related impacts disproportionately.”  On balance, the court found this analysis adequate under NEPA.

Mitigation.  The plaintiffs claimed that the EIS/EIR did not include enough detail on the mitigation measures proposed for visual, construction, and safety impacts.  The court noted that, under NEPA, an EIS is only required to include a “reasonably thorough discussion of mitigation measures.”  The court reviewed the mitigation measures listed in the EIS/EIR in each of the categories cited by the plaintiffs and found that the level of detail was sufficient under NEPA, even though some details of the mitigation measures had not yet been determined.  

Supplemental EIS.  The plaintiffs claimed that the Final EIS/EIR included new information that required a Supplemental EIS/EIR to be prepared, including certain additional traffic impacts at a congested intersection and the addition of fencing along the project’s at-grade segment.

With regard to the fencing, the court noted that the concept of fencing had been discussed in the Draft EIS/EIR and the specific fencing proposed in the Final EIS/EIR had been adopted in response to public comments.  The court reasoned that “agencies must be given some breathing room to modify alternatives in the DEIS/R in order to properly reflect this public input.  If an agency must file a supplemental draft EIS every time any modifications occur, agencies as a practical matter may become hostile to modifying the alternatives to be responsive to earlier public comment. “

With regard to the traffic impacts, the court noted that the Draft EIS/EIR had included a detailed traffic analysis, which concluded that the light-rail alternative would have a negative impact on the intersection in question.  This analysis was updated in the Final EIS/EIR based on more detailed engineering and additional intersection counts.  The court found that the design presented in the Final EIS/EIR was “at most a minor modification”  and did not require an SEIS to be prepared.

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