The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed a challenge by environmental groups to an $11-billion proposal to widen a 325-mile stretch of Interstate Highway 81 in Virginia. Shenandoah Valley Network v. Capka, No. 10-1954 (4th Cir. 2/17/12).
Filed in 2007 and amended in 2008, the complaint alleged that the project would cause irreparable harm to scenic, cultural historic and ecological resources near the highway and that the Federal Highway Administration and Virginia Department of Transportation failed to properly consider alternatives, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NE PA). The district court granted summary judgment to the agencies, ruling that they had complied with NE PA. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the agencies adopted a tiered approach to planning the project thereby precluding them from considering alternatives for specific highway sections, such as using bypasses to steer around historic landmarks or environmentally sensitive sites.
The court found that the groups “misapprehended the agencies’ position” and that there was no actual controversy between the groups and the agencies. According to the court, the agencies had entered into a stipulation earlier in the litigation in which they agreed to “consider site-specific alternatives to lane-widening at Tier 2,” thereby channeling the decision-making process in an environmentally friendly way. Highway I-81 is a major trucking route stretching 855 miles from Tennessee to the New York-Canada border. The agencies project a doubling of traffic on the highway by 2035.