Home » Case Summaries » 1997 » Price Road Neighborhood Ass'n v. United States Department of Transportation


Price Road Neighborhood Ass'n v. United States Department of Transportation



An association of residents living near a proposed freeway interchange project brought action against the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT), Federal Highway Administration (FHA), and Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) alleging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),[1] as well as the procedural requirements mandated by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and FHA, because defendants failed to conduct a supplemental environmental assessment (EA) after modifying the original interchange design. The plaintiff-appellants also claimed that the agencies failed to provide adequate public participation opportunities and that the agencies’ decisions were based on an inadequate reevaluation, and therefore were arbitrary and capricious. The United States District Court for the District of Arizona granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, and the plaintiffs appealed. The Ninth Circuit held the following: (1) NEPA requirements were satisfied through use of a re­evaluation process rather than creation of a supplemental EA, (2) the fact that agencies did not hold additional meetings while conducting reevaluation of the original EA did not violate public participation requirements, and (3) the reevaluation was adequate, therefore the agencies’ determination that the proposed redesign produced “no discernible differences” was not arbitrary and capricious.

The subject of the dispute was the partial redesign of the “Price Interchange” being built by ADOT in Tempe, Arizona. ADOT prepared an EA pursuant to NEPA in 1987 and 1988, and, after final review, issued a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) indicating that the proposal would have no significant effect on the human environment. The initially preferred design was a four-level, fully-directional interchange, which included two below-ground, fully enclosed tunnels. The tunnels were chosen at least in part to allay concerns of residents about the fifty-foot above-ground height of ramps in an earlier design, and reduced this height to twenty-five feet above ground.

In January 1995, ADOT informed FHA that it wanted to save construction and maintenance costs by modifying the initial design to include two fully directional loop ramps rather than the two tunnel ramps. The FHA required ADOT to conduct an environmental re­evaluation in order to determine the continuing validity of the original EA and resulting FONSI. Subsequently, ADOT conducted a public meeting to inform the public of the proposed modifications, and eventually modified its proposal and adopted a semidirectional ramp design based on a plan submitted by a citizen. FHA eventually approved the environmental reevaluation, making the finding that there were no discernible differences in the level of environmental impacts when comparing the original design with the revised proposal. The Price Road Neighborhood Association (PRNA) then filed a complaint against USDOT and ADOT seeking declaratory and injunctive relief based on the claims above.

The Ninth Circuit held that the environmental reevaluation was an appropriate vehicle for FHA to determine the significance of impacts produced by the modified design in deciding whether a supplemental EA was required. While agreeing with the plaintiffs that an agency’s NEPA responsibilities do not end with the initial assessment and that supplemental documentation is sometimes necessary, the Ninth Circuit noted that such documentation is only required when the environmental impacts not evaluated by the original analysis are either significant or uncertain. Therefore, the agency must first determine if the impacts resulting from the proposed change are significant before deciding whether supplemental documentation is necessary. As neither NEPA nor the implementing regulations discuss how this determination is to be made, FHA had discretion to issue its own regulation providing for reevaluation of environmental documents. The court held that this re­evaluation procedure satisfied the requirement that agencies take a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of their actions and not act on incomplete information.

The Ninth Circuit found that the reevaluation process did not violate explicit statutory and regulatory public participation requirements because ADOT held two public meetings to discuss the redesign of the interchange. Not only did residents voice their concerns at the meetings, but members of the public actively participated in the design pro­­­cess by submitting alternatives, one of which was adopted.

The court rejected PRNA’s attempt to challenge the adequacy of the reevaluation by engaging in a battle of the experts. The plaintiffs sought to introduce their own studies with regard to several impacts, including air quality and noise, which contradicted the findings of the agencies, but the court noted that agencies have discretion to rely on their own qualified experts when specialists disagree. In this case, the methodology used and conclusions reached by the agencies were supported by scientific data, therefore, the court found it reasonable for the agencies to rely on the opinions of their own experts.

[1]42 U.S.C. §§ 4321-4370d (1994).

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