WASHINGTON — Arlington County, Va., is suing state and U.S. transportation officials to stop a high-occupancy toll lanes project on Interstate 395 and I-95, alleging an "arbitrary and capricious" failure to do adequate research on environmental and other impacts.
The lawsuit was filed two days after the Virginia Department of Transportation announced that it would delay the project this month partly due to "local government and community concerns, as well as challenging credit market conditions," but would continue working with stakeholders on the project.
The HOT lanes are to be developed under an 80-year public-private partnership entered into in 2006 between the Virginia DOT and private vendors Fluor Virginia Inc. and Transurban Development Inc., or Fluor-Transurban. The project would create new toll lanes along the highways as well as adding exit and entrance ramps, interchanges, parking lots, bus facilities, and additional infrastructure along the length of the highways' corridor in northern Virginia from Spotsylvania County to the Pentagon area in Arlington County.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, stems from the project obtaining a "categorical exclusion" from the usually lengthy environmental assessment and public comment processes that are required for many large infrastructure projects by federal clean air and environmental protection laws.
The county is suing the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, the Virginia DOT, and the top officials for each agency.
Categorical exclusions are granted when projects are deemed to not have a significant effect on the human environment of the project. According to the FHWA's criteria for the category, a qualifying project would have no significant impact on travel patterns, nor on air, noise, water quality.
The FHWA's decision in January to grant the waiver was "outlandish and rationally indefensible" and made "after a contrived and cursory review" by outgoing Bush administration officials, the county alleges.
"By invoking deliberately deficient, inaccurate, and woefully inadequate traffic analyses and environmental reviews to support their determination," the defendants failed to adequately assess the public health and historic preservation impacts that the project would have on the county, including specific impacts on low-income and minority communities, schools, day-care facilities, and elderly homes, the county said.
Under a similar public-private partnership between Virginia and Fluor-Transurban to build HOT lanes along part of the Beltway, the Virginia DOT and FHWA performed the kind of environmental review that the county is seeking. Construction began last summer.
The Virginia DOT announced Monday that it would delay the project. But the county still filed its lawsuit Wednesday because it had received "no assurances that they're going to go back and really study it the way they should," said Arlington County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac.
"The contractor is motivated to get the project through and get underway as quick as it can, and so is the commonwealth. They have no reason to get hung up on an environmental process," MacIsaac said. "Folks at the end of the line in Arlington, we're the ones who are going to have to deal with that."
Virginia DOT officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.