Bypass study order lets us cut to the chase


By: Packet Editorial
   Believe it or not, Gov. Christie Whitman saved everyone a lot of time and trouble last week when she ordered the state Department of Transportation to prepare a full environmental impact statement on the proposed Millstone Bypass.
   To be sure, preparing a comprehensive EIS will be a time-consuming process. It is supposed to generate a whole new round of studies, a thorough examination of alternatives to the present plan and consideration of numerous suggested changes to the controversial roadway’s alignment. It undoubtedly will push back the schedule for its construction by a couple of years or more.
   But what the governor’s action spared us all was an extended period of procedural wrangling between proponents and opponents of the proposed bypass over the disposition of the environmental assessment, or EA, prepared by the state DOT. We fully expected the two sides to spend the next several weeks, if not months, engaged in protracted debate – including repeated requests for postponement of hearings and submission of exhaustive briefs – over whether the EA did or did not represent a sufficiently comprehensive analysis of the environmental impact of the proposed bypass.
   That is a moot point now. The DOT can get right to work on the EIS, without having to spend a whole lot of time arguing over the sufficiency or inadequacy of the EA.
   Ironically, one of the arguments opponents planned to use for delaying any action on the EA was its comprehensiveness – or at least its sheer volume. The document is over 400 pages long – much longer, they contend, than an EA is supposed to be. The complete document is not yet available in written form; for the moment, it can be retrieved only from the Internet and, because it contains several complicated, high-graphic maps, it is difficult to download.
   How much more comprehensive will an EIS be? That probably depends on how open to suggestion the DOT is for changing the alignment, even slightly, from the one proposed in the EA. If the agency remains wedded to the current alignment, the analysis of alternatives will likely be superficial at best, and it is hard to imagine the resultant EIS being any more sweeping, or voluminous, than the 400-page EA. If, on the other hand, the DOT decides to look seriously at any number of alternatives, including some of the suggestions put forward by the more responsible opponents of the current alignment, a meaningful and useful analysis could be in the offing.
   This outcome is likewise dependent on the willingness of the more vocal opponents to recognize that some sort of bypass is inevitable. One way or another, in the interest of improving the flow of north-south traffic through the region, those traffic lights along Route 1 at Washington Road, Fisher Place and Harrison Street are going to be eliminated, and a new east-west roadway is going to be built. Moreover, this roadway is going to have an impact on the environment – if not on the Delaware & Raritan Canal or the Washington Road Elms Allée, then on other physical and ecological attributes of the region.
   The purpose of an EIS is to examine all reasonable alternatives and choose the one that has the least adverse impact on the environment. That can happen only if a lot of people on both sides of the Millstone Bypass debate agree to tone down the rhetoric, roll up their sleeves and look for a reasonable and responsible solution to one of our region’s most serious and chronic traffic problems. Pretending to have all the answers already – or, worse, pretending that the problem doesn’t even exist – will do nothing to advance the public good. If that turns out to be the response to Gov. Whitman’s call for an EIS, her decision will have paved the way not for a burst of essential action but for a frustrating continuation of unnecessary delay.