The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond has rejected the state’s plan to build the $725 million Monroe Connector-Bypass. The court’s decision proves yet again the cover up is often much worse than the underlying mistake.

The original screw up? The National Environmental Policy Act establishes a process for obtaining regulatory approval for major road projects. Follow the steps NEPA outlines, and the project gets the approved. One key aspect is comparing the situation with and without the road. And that’s whether things started to go off track.

The state used data supplied by the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization. A key MUMPO model assumed the connector got built and this was used to establish the baseline as to what conditions would be like if the road weren’t built. That would be a problem, but maybe not a fatal one. The state eventually discovered the issue but didn’t admit it despite repeated questions from environmental groups and federal regulators until the case was heard in federal district court. As the Court of appeals held:

In sum, although we need not and do not decide whether NEPA permits the Agencies to use MUMPO’s data in this case, we do hold that by doing so without disclosing the data’s underlying assumptions and by falsely responding to public concerns, the Agencies failed to take the required “‘hard look’ at environmental consequences.” We therefore vacate the judgment of the district court and remand so that the Agencies and the public can fully (and publicly) evaluate the “no build” data.

Bonus observation: The questioning of state and federal lawyers before the appeals court was absolutely brutal. I listen to a fair amount of oral arguments and its been awhile since I’ve heard such aggressive questioning. Think parent reading the riot act to a teenager.