Durango's "Bridge to Nowhere" has justifiably generated quite a community discussion in recent weeks, even front-page news in the Sunday edition of The Denver Post.
The towering overpass above U.S. Highway 160 east of town, ending in the face of a mesa, provides a useful lesson about the benefits of adhering to the original intention of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA for short.
NEPA is the now 40-year-old federal law that dictates preparation of Environmental Impact Statements for projects involving federal lands or money. Its purpose is to help decision-makers reach better-informed conclusions about their projects. Unfortunately, over the years, NEPA has all too often come to be viewed simply as paperwork necessary to be crossed off the list en route to a predetermined outcome. That appears to have been the case with decision-making behind the "Bridge to Nowhere."
Consider the ideal circumstances for a NEPA analysis. An agency like the Colorado Department of Transportation identifies a project, in this case four-laning U.S. Highway 160 and reconfiguring the U.S. Highway 550/160 interchange. Then it embarks on creating an array of possible alternatives for achieving the desired outcome - an improved highway interchange. It conducts detailed environmental investigations, undercovers relevant facts and determines the alternative with the fewest environmental impacts. The analysis should result in a "no surprises" set of choices so decision-makers are clear that some interchange alignments may entail major environmental impacts such as potential destruction of 1,000-year-old archaeological sites, while other alignments perhaps impact a greater number of landowners.
The entire process is intended to enlighten those making decisions with the best set of facts, in theory leading to a better decision. With the "Bridge to Nowhere" and the Highway 550/160 interchange decision, CDOT's implementation of NEPA fell apart. For some reason, the environmental impact statement for the project failed to identify dozens of archaeological sites of substantial historical significance along the chosen right-of-way. CDOT and/or its consultants perhaps fell into the trap of thinking NEPA was just more paperwork and not a valuable tool for reaching smarter decisions. Now, CDOT seems to be blaming the public for not providing more diligent oversight and review of its environmental analysis, and pointing out the errors in that analysis. That's hardly an excuse for miserably failing to uncover something NEPA documents routinely discover, namely, the existence of archaeological resources significant enough to qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hence, the community ends up with a multimillion-dollar bridge ending in the face of a cliff, and CDOT has a fair bit of mud on its face with residents and elected officials locally and statewide. If there's any lesson to be learned from this exercise, it should be for decision-makers such as CDOT and other agencies to pay better attention to the original intent of NEPA. Prioritize obtaining the best information in order to make the best decisions. It's a practice that certainly might have improved the chain of decisions that resulted in our bridge to nowhere.
Mark Pearson is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.