Environmental impacts from widening Highway 126 through wetlands with endangered species claimed to be not “significant” by ODOT

By Claire Roth
February 17, 2022

Responding to questions about potential environmental impacts of widening Highway 126 between Veneta and Eugene, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) denied that there were any “that rise to the level of ‘significant.’ ”

Crossing Fern Ridge Reservoir — Veneta to Eugene: OR 126 Road Widening NEPA Study. Source: ODOT

ODOT made these assertions in a response to questions from 1000 Friends of Oregon staff attorney Alexis Biddle and 350 Eugene president Patty Hine.

Biddle and Hine had written, “We were disappointed and shocked to learn that there are no plans to accept public comments on the study after it is completed but before it is submitted to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for approval.”

They had identified multiple potential impacts of the project:

  • The project is large and can reasonably be expected to have significant impacts.
  • It allows for expanding the footprint of the highway from 2 to as many as 8 lanes: 4 travel lanes, 1 center turn lane, 2 shoulders, and 1 separated multi-use path, possibly with large roundabouts at some intersections.
  • Doing so would require filling wetlands, in the vicinity of where threatened and endangered species have been identified.
  • In addition to addressing safety concerns, the project is explicitly intended to relieve congestion by increasing capacity, supporting growth in and beyond Veneta with more travel.
  • As such, the project can reasonably be expected to increase greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles.
  • Finally, with an estimated cost of $250–350 million, the project obviously imposes large direct economic costs on taxpayers, as well as large opportunity costs for other projects that might not be funded if this project moves forward.

They had asked ODOT for “a detailed response citing FHWA regulations that are asserted to justify classifying this NEPA study as a categorical exclusion.”

ODOT reports that they are in agreement with FHWA that a lowest level of environmental review — a categorical exclusion or CE — is appropriate. But they do not cite FHWA regulations that justify this view.

At their recent winter meet-up, 350 Eugene discussed environmental concerns with the Highway 126 project.

This spring, ODOT plans to submit its environmental analysis of the project to FHWA for approval — without first seeking public review.

Learn more about BEST’s efforts around Highway 126 West.