Saturday, 1 March 2003

Transportation agencies: please put EISes online

One of my biggest pet peeves as a roadgeek is the seeming impossibility of getting any information on a highway project if you can't make it to a public meeting. While DOTs are getting better about posting their public meetings online (Tennessee's dedicated calendar is probably the best in the Mid-South, while Arkansas at least puts theirs online in the news releases; Mississippi posts the notices rarely in their news release section; and Alabama not at all), you've still got to get to the meeting. Because if you miss the meeting, you'll never find a copy of the environmental impact statement (EIS) or other documentation without spending the rest of your life looking for it, it seems.

There are some notable exceptions to this situation: Indiana DOT has put all of its documentation online at the project website for Interstate 69 in southwestern Indiana, as has the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam Bypass project (among others). But most of the time, the EISes just disappear into a virtual black hole, seemingly uncataloged (or at least, not cataloged under any name that seems logical) and gathering dust in a local library. Since all of these documents are produced electronically today, products like Adobe Acrobat's “Distiller” could easily be used to prepare portable online versions of the EIS, and agencies could distribute the EIS more readily over the web and on recordable CDs. It would make the process more transparent to the public and be a low-cost way to include more people in transportation planning and similar processes. So why are so few states doing it?

The only conclusion I can reach is that the federal agencies that ask for this documentation don't require states to put these documents online. While I'm not generally a big fan of federal mandates, this seems to be one case where the mandate might in fact be justified — the costs are low and the potential benefits quite high. It's a requirement Congress should seriously consider adding to the TEA-21 reauthorization bill due this fall.