SHUDDE FATH; SAVE BARTON CREEK ASSOCIATION; FRIENDS OF THE WILDFLOWER CENTER; CAROLE KEETON; FRANK CLOUD COOKSEY; JERRY JEFF WALKER; SUSAN WALKER; DOCTOR LAURIE DRIES; SAVE OUR SPRINGS ALLIANCE, INCORPORATED; MOPAC CORRIDOR NEIGHBORS ALLIANCE; THE FRIENDSHIP ALLIANCE OF NORTHERN HAYS COUNTY, INCORPORATED; CLEAN WATER ACTION, Plaintiffs - Appellants
TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION; CENTRAL TEXAS REGIONAL MOBILITY AUTHORITY, Defendants - Appellees
from the United States District Court for the Western
District of Texas
JOLLY, JONES, and HAYNES, Circuit Judges.
challenge Texas's plans for three highway projects in
Austin. They argue Texas violated the National Environmental
Policy Act ("NEPA") by treating the projects as
separate projects in studying their environmental impact,
instead of as a single project, and also by not studying
"cumulative impact." The district court held that
Texas complied with NEPA. For the reasons set forth below, we
Factual and Procedural Background
has proposed several new highways to alleviate horrific
traffic in Austin. It wants to build overpasses where Texas
State Highway Loop 1 (colloquially known as
"MoPac") intersects with two existing streets, so
that MoPac would pass under those streets. It is also in the
midst of extending State Highway 45 West by about four miles,
with a tolled freeway that will run from MoPac's southern
tip and down into bordering Hays County. Finally, it has
plans to add express lanes on eight miles of MoPac.
overpass project, the Texas Department of Transportation
("TxDot") conducted an initial NEPA review, known
as an Environmental Assessment. Based on studies prepared between
2014 and 2015, TxDot concluded that the overpass project
would not cause any significant environmental effects and so
no further study was needed under NEPA. Separately, TxDot,
along with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority,
studied the Highway 45 project pursuant to state
environmental law; the agencies did not study it under NEPA
because the state is not receiving federal aid for the
project, so they concluded NEPA did not apply. The agencies
are still in the initial phase of reviewing the envisioned
express lanes on MoPac.
including environmental groups and local residents, filed
this suit under NEPA and the Administrative Procedure Act,
challenging the highway studies. They raise concerns about
the potential combined impact of the highways on the Edwards
Aquifer and endangered or protected species, including the
golden-cheeked warbler and the Barton Springs and Austin
blind salamanders. The district court denied Plaintiffs'
motion for a preliminary injunction, and this court affirmed
on the sole issue presented, which was whether the district
court used the right regulatory framework. After a subsequent
bench trial, the district court concluded that TxDot complied
with NEPA and all applicable regulations. Plaintiffs now
Standard of Review
review the district court's legal conclusions de novo.
Fritiofson v. Alexander, 772 F.2d 1225,
1240 (5th Cir. 1985), abrogated on other grounds by
Sabine River Auth. v. U.S. Dep't of
Interior, 951 F.2d 669 (5th Cir. 1992). When a district
court sits as the initial reviewing court of an
administrative agency's decisions, "we must give
great deference to the district court's conclusions"
and "hesitate to reverse" if the district court
based its judgment on lengthy evidentiary proceedings,
factual inferences, and witness credibility determinations.
See Sabine River, 951 F.2d at 678-79 (quoting in
part N. Buckhead Civic Ass'n v.
Skinner, 903 F.2d 1533, 1539 (11th Cir. 1990)).
Otherwise, we review de novo, which entails asking whether an
agency's actions were "arbitrary, capricious, an
abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with
law." See id. at 679; 5 U.S.C. § 706.
Under this highly deferential standard, we have the
"least latitude in finding grounds for reversal."
Sabine River, 951 F.2d at 678 (quoting N.
Buckhead Civic Ass'n, 903 F.2d at 1538). The test is
ordinarily met only
if the agency has relied on factors which Congress has not
intended it to consider, entirely failed to consider an
important aspect of the problem, offered an explanation for
its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the
agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to
a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.
Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n v. State Farm Mut. Auto.
Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983).