September 9, 2002
David P. Willis
Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission
P.O. Box 67676
Harrisburg, PA 17106-7676
Re: Comments on Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Mon-Fayette Expressway
Dear Mr. Willis:
The following are the comments of Information Renaissance on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) prepared by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
1. The DEIS should have been placed on the Commission's website to maximize public understanding and input.
a. Background. On June 13, 2002, Information Renaissance (Info Ren) wrote to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, the FHWA, PennDot and the Corps of Engineers requesting that the DEIS for the Mon-Fayette Expressway be placed on the Commission's web site for public review. See Attachment No. 1. The DEIS had been released on May 24, 2002, and the Commission had adopted the policy of making it available by placing hard copies in municipal offices and libraries and through CD-ROMs at $10.00 each. Info Ren's letter followed several phone calls inquiring about the availability of the DEIS, requesting that the DEIS be placed online and trying to understand the reasons for the Commission's failure to do so.
On June 18, the Corps of Engineers supported Info Ren's request with a letter (Attachment No. 2) to the Turnpike Commission, stating "[t]his office agrees that the placement of the Draft EIS on your web site would be an excellent way for the public to review and comment on the document before the expiration of the comment period."
On June 25, however, the FHWA stated that there is no specific federal requirement to place a copy of the DEIS on a project sponsor's website and, "due to the many potential technical and logistical difficulties, [the Turnpike Commission and PennDot] do not anticipate posting the DEIS on a website." See Attachment No. 3. The FHWA noted that the DEIS is "readily available" for public inspection in a hard copy or CD Rom format.
Finally, on July 8, the Turnpike Commission responded. See Attachment No. 4. The Commission stated that it had considered placing the document on its website but had two issues of concern. It said the document would not be available to those wishing to access it if there were an interruption of service to the website. It also said that placing the document on the website would encourage the public to provide comments by email, which the Commission does not accept due to the potential for service interruptions and the difficulty of opening certain attached files. The Commission stated that its policy of distributing CD-Roms for a fee and placing copies of the document at public sites for the public's review gives the public an adequate opportunity to review the details of the project.
b. The use of the Internet to expand the opportunity for the public to participate in the EIS process is good public policy. Info Ren is a non-profit organization whose mission is, in part, the expansion of the public's ability to interact with government through the use of the Internet. The Internet makes it possible for the government to open its processes for more extensive public review and input. Government documents can be reviewed easily (without driving to a government office), at all hours of the day (affording access to people whose jobs prevent them from visiting government offices) and inexpensively (without having to pay copying fees). The Internet is particularly useful for people with visual disabilities (using assistive devices) and ambulatory disabilities. Moreover, the Internet provides opportunities for interactions between the public and government officials, making it easy for the public to ask questions and make comments.
The proposed Mon-Fayette Expressway is a project that could benefit greatly by more extensive public participation. The Expressway is the largest transportation project to be built in Western Pennsylvania for years. The segment from Route 51 to the Parkway in Pittsburgh alone is expected to cost at least $1.8 billion. The project is also complicated and controversial. Despite all of the public meetings, the public has not had a chance to truly see the details -- why the project is needed, what its impacts will be, what alternatives are available, and perhaps the biggest question, how the project will be funded.
EISs are supposed to provide answers to these questions. They require agencies to analyze alternatives in a disciplined format before they undertake big, expensive projects, and they're supposed to give the public a chance to review and comment on agencies' analyses before the agencies start spending the public's money. Indeed, at public meetings, Turnpike Commission officials have emphasized how much they want the public to review the EIS and how seriously they will consider the public's comments.
In the case of the Mon-Fayette DEIS, some small number of people with the necessary determination and resources will have purchased the CD-Rom of the DEIS or traveled to a municipal building, where they were able to read and make copies of the DEIS document. A far smaller number of people had the determination and resources to drive to the Commission's regional office in New Stanton to read and copy the documents upon which the DEIS is based. People with disabilities were largely out of luck. The CD-Rom was prepared in a format that made it inaccessible to the assistive devices that enable visually impaired people to read the document. Similarly, people unable to travel were unable to review the document at the public review sites.
Placing planning documents, such as EISs, on government web sites is an easy, inexpensive and well-accepted way for agencies to inform the public about plans and receive public comments. It's especially important for long, complicated documents that require time and effort to read and substantial expense to copy.
c. The placement of EISs online is consistent with policies of FWWA and OMB to use the Internet to expand opportunities for public. The federal government has been a leader in the use of the Internet to increase the transparency of government programs and to increase the public's ability to participate in government decisions. The Corps of Engineers' support for the placement of the DEIS online is an example of these policies. The FHWA's lack of support contradicts these polices.
As early as 1996, the FHWA adopted guidelines encouraging its program offices to use the Internet to increase the public's participation in FHWA activities. See Public Involvement Techniques for Transportation Decision-Making (U.S. Dept. of Transportation, FHWA, Sept. 1996). More recently, on February 27, 2002, the Office of Management and Budget issued the federal government's "E-Government Strategy -- Implementing the President's Management Agenda for E-Government." It was released online and is available at www.whitehouse.gov/omb/inforeg/egovstrategy.pdf . The E-Government Strategy proposed that the Department of Transportation, of which FHWA is a part, expand and enhance the agency's existing "e-Docket" system to establish online rulemaking. The existing system houses documents relevant to the rulemaking and other proceedings on a web site accessible to the public and solicits comments from the public in electronic formats. See http://dms.dot.gov/ .
d. The Turnpike Commission and the FHWA unreasonably rejected the Corps of Engineers' request that the DEIS be placed online. As noted earlier, the Corps of Engineers formally supported Info Ren's request for the placement of the DEIS on the Commission's website. The Commission rejected the Corps of Engineers' request without apparent reply.
2. The CD-ROMs used to distribute the DEIS violate federal requirements relating to the purchase of accessible technology and reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.
a. Reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Commission's policy on access to the DEIS appears to violate the ADA's prohibition against discrimination and requirement for equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in regard to governmental activities. The ADA requires that reasonable accommodations be provided in meeting the needs of individuals with disabilities.
The Commission's policy of distributing hard copies of the DEIS at government buildings and through the sale of CD-Roms, which are not compatible with assistive devices for visually impaired individuals, excludes visually impaired individuals from the public comment process. The pdf technology used by the Commission in connection with the CD-Roms has the capability to be programmed to work compatibly with assistive devices for visually impaired people. The assistive devices work as reading instruments, converting the written text into audible language for the reader. Such capabilities can also be incorporated into a website. These capabilities, however, were excluded from the CD-Roms prepared by the Commission. Accordingly, neither of the opportunities to involve the public was accessible to people with visual disabilities.
b. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 USC 794d) requires that electronic and information technology used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities:
(1) AccessibilityThe CD-Roms sold and distributed by the Commission are not accessible by people with visual disabilities. Although the Commission is not a federal agency, the FHWA and Corps of Engineers are federal agencies, and the DEIS is being prepared to satisfy their duties under NEPA and the Transportation Act. Accordingly, the violation of section 508 applies to the FHWA and the Corps of Engineers.
(A) Development, procurement, maintenance, or use of electronic
and information technology
When developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology, each Federal department or agency, . . . shall ensure, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency, that the electronic and information technology allows, regardless of the type of medium of the technology -
* * *
(ii) individuals with disabilities who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by such members of the public who are not individuals with disabilities.
(29 USC 794d; Emphasis Added).