The Road to Streamlining
An indepth look at the NEPA process and ways to expedite it.
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) marked the beginning of the environmental review process for all Federal actions, including the construction of highway and bridge projects falling under the U. S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration (USDOT/FHWA). According to the Congressional Research Service CRS Report for Congress: Environmental Streamlining Provisions in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century: Status of Implementation, "Numerous stakeholders have expressed long-standing concerns about delays and increased costs for major highway construction projects, which are often attributed to the environmental review process required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA, P.L. 91-190). The substantial amount of time and funding often needed to prepare such documentation for highway projects has been an ongoing issue at the State and local level for many years." This perception is especially the case when the process involves an environmental impact statement (EIS), which is the most comprehensive and time-consuming environmental documentation required under NEPA.
"Good construction projects must move forward promptly, and those unsuited because they would be harmful to the environment, or do not enjoy community support, should quickly and decisively be taken off the drawing board," says FHWA Administrator Mary E. Peters. "To ensure environmental streamlining and stewardship, efficient environmental review processes are a priority."
To this end, Section 1309 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) in 1998 directed USDOT/FHWA to "develop and implement a coordinated environmental review process" for highway construction projects. One of the key elements of the coordinated process is the establishment of agreed time periods for the conduct of project analysis, review, opinion, decision, and approval. Section 1309 instructs that review processes be applied to projects requiring either the preparation of an EIS or an environmental assessment under NEPA.
More recently, in September 2002, President George W. Bush signed an Executive order requiring Federal agencies to promote environmental stewardship in the Nation's transportation system and expedite environmental reviews of high-priority transportation infrastructure projects. Similarly, both bodies of Congress have introduced bills designed to streamline the environmental process and expedite project delivery.
But amid the effort to streamline the NEPA process, one critical piece of the puzzle had been missing. The direct effects of NEPA on transportation projects—in terms of time and cost—had not been explored in depth. Without knowing the impacts of NEPA on overall project delivery, there is no yardstick to measure the success or failure of past and future streamlining efforts. Without understanding what has served historically to expedite or slow the NEPA process, effective means of streamlining cannot be identified.
To remedy this lack, FHWA's Office of Project Development and Environmental Review initiated a series of studies to determine how NEPA integrates into the overall process of project delivery and to assess the impacts of the NEPA process on the timing and cost of project delivery. The answers now are becoming clear.
Defining the NEPA Baseline
One of the studies, undertaken in 2000, provides a better understanding of the impacts of the NEPA process on the total time involved in completing a Federal-aid highway or bridge project. Previously, the portion of time and cost attributed to NEPA requirements versus other potential sources of delay within the overall project delivery process—such as funding shortages, changes in design, contractor delays, lawsuits, and injunctions—had not been well understood. Ultimately, the study aimed to provide a baseline for comparing current and future environmental streamlining efforts within the NEPA process.
The baseline study focused on projects that have been constructed and are fully operating. In total, 100 constructed surface transportation projects with environmental impact statements completed in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s were selected for analysis.
"Compared to previous studies of its kind, the baseline study offered a more comprehensive and less subjective approach to assessing the NEPA process," says Ken Hess, general manager at The Louis Berger Group, Inc., which conducted the study with FHWA. "The NEPA baseline study was designed to be reflective of real data that are as temporally and geographically diverse as possible."
Key Findings of the Baseline Study
A number of conclusions came to light. The study confirmed a positive relationship between the length of the NEPA process and the length of the total project development process:
- The completion of the NEPA process accounted for approximately 28 percent of the overall time for the project development process.
- The average time to complete an EIS for a transportation project was about 3.6 years.
- The mean length of time for the completion of a project was approximately 13.1 years.
- The average time to prepare an EIS under NEPA ranged from a low of 2.2 years in the 1970s to a high of 5.0 years in the early 1990s.
The project also identified a number of requirements found to influence the length of time required to prepare an EIS. Requirements include Section 404 permits for impacts on wetlands and Section 4(f) provisions pertaining to public parks, recreation lands, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, and historic sites. Two of the requirements appeared to have a statistical relationship to time required to prepare an EIS. It should be noted, however, that another factor—the number of agency meetings held—likely does not have a causal relationship with the time required to prepare an EIS, but rather is more indicative of the complexity of the project.
The full report, Evaluating the Performance of Environmental Streamlining: Development of a NEPA Baseline for Measuring Continuous Performance, is available at www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/strmlng/baseline/index.htm.
One Step Further: The NEPA Baseline Phase II
The success of the NEPA baseline study in describing the factors influencing the duration of the NEPA process prompted another investigation building on the conclusions of the initial study. The aim of the followup research, Evaluating the Performance of Environmental Streamlining: Development of a NEPA Baseline for Measuring Continuous Performance Phase II, known as the NEPA Baseline Phase II study, was to determine if the initial study results were repeatable, or if a comparative assessment could be made between the two sets of results.
"The Phase II research expands the development of the baseline NEPA condition to include the more recent past," says Hess. "In this way, a comparison can be made between the earlier and later periods under study."
Although the purpose of the study was the same as its Phase I predecessor, Phase II differed in several important ways:
- Phase II focused only on the NEPA process itself instead of the relationship of NEPA to the overall project delivery process.
- Phase II focused on the two factors identified in Phase I as having a statistical relationship with the length of time of the NEPA process.
- Phase II eliminated the earlier requirement that a project must be completed and open for use in order to be considered and instead included all 244 highway projects requiring environmental impact statements completed between 1995 and 2001.
- Phase II improved upon the "start" date of the project development process, defining it by the Notice of Intent publishing date and thus minimizing subjectivity in the discernment of the dates.
"In combination, the two phases of research essentially tell the whole story since the inception of NEPA," says Hess. "The studies provide a benchmark and a means to identify whether FHWA streamlining efforts are making a difference—today and in future."
|Requirements and Other Factors||Average Years Required
To Complete EIS
Section 404 Permit (Wetlands)
Section 4(f) Approval (Public Lands)
Number of Agency Meetings
Preliminary Findings of The Phase II Study
Although the NEPA Baseline Phase II study currently is undergoing final review, preliminary results are available. Based on the sample projects analyzed, the Phase II study identified the following trends during the 1995-2001 period:
- The average time for preparation and completion of an EIS was 5.1 years, while the median length of time was 4.7 years.
- Projects undertaken in the former FHWA Region 4 (Southeastern States) exhibited the highest mean value (5.6 years of actual NEPA process time) related to the time to complete the EIS process.
- Former Regions 8 (Rocky Mountain States) and 6 (South Central) exhibited the lowest mean values of time (3.8 years) during the study period.
- Although not found to be statistically significant, the requirement of performing a Section 4(f) evaluation for a project may extend the length of the NEPA process by 5 to 7 months, depending on the set of mean values used.
- FHWA's Office of Project Development and Environmental Review expects to post the final study on its Web site by June or July 2003. The study will be available at www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/strmlng/baseline/index.htm.
Successful Examples of Environmental Streamlining
Durations of Environmental Impact Statements in Months
Case Studies: Lessons Learned
To assist in future environmental streamlining efforts, FHWA identified eight examples of highway projects that demonstrate successful measures in expedited environmental reviews. The Records of Decision for these eight case studies were approved between 1998 and 2000.
The case studies illustrate that the EIS process can flow at an expedited rate for a variety of project types and diverse settings. What is most interesting about these procedures and techniques is that they are commonsense approaches and do not involve any cutting-edge technologies.
One tip is to capitalize on the extensive project development and analysis performed in studies prepared prior to initiating the NEPA process. Another is to initiate NEPA-type studies in advance of the formal NEPA process. A third technique is to promote interagency coordination and cooperation via formal or informal memoranda of understanding. Implement early and continuous public involvement programs in an aggressive fashion. Pursue high-level political support for the project. Develop and use State-initiated streamlining programs, and develop procedures for facilitating document preparation and review.
"If properly implemented, the completion of a NEPA EIS does not have to be overly lengthy," says Dr. Tianjia Tang, former project manager for the John Young Parkway project and currently highway engineer and air quality specialist at FHWA's Southern Resource Center. "It can be expedited for all transportation projects by using various procedures and techniques." (See "Lessons Learned" in Public Roads May/June 2003 issue for an article about streamlining the John Young Parkway.)
The major findings of the research will be presented in a lessons learned section of the final report, which will describe the procedures and techniques that have streamlined the EIS process in one or more of the cases studied. The report of the eight case studies of successful environmental streamlining is scheduled to be available on the FHWA "Environmental Streamlining" Web site (www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/strmlng/index.htm) in July 2003.
National Survey: Measuring Performance Of the NEPA Process
As part of its response to the Section 1309 charge to implement a streamlined environmental process, FHWA contracted with The Gallup Organization to conduct a survey of personnel in transportation and resource agencies to ascertain the perceptions of key participants in the transportation project development process nationwide. The survey will be available in summer 2003. Specifically, the survey will explore how stakeholders in the NEPA process view the duration of the process, the quality of the environmental work and services performed by their counterparts, and areas where improvement may be needed.
Based on a pilot survey, preliminary results suggest that respondents exhibit high rates of satisfaction with the collaborative aspects of the process. The pilot also found that survey participants generally are satisfied with the level of participation by agencies, timely response to requests, and communications. However, a relatively small number of respondents felt that interagency communications are characterized by the provision of timely updates on progress or a willingness to compromise, indicating that these may be problem areas. Whether these trends will be confirmed in the national survey remains to be seen.
The concept of streamlining the NEPA environmental review procedures is not new. As part of its implementing regulations for NEPA prepared in 1978, the Council on Environmental Quality directed agencies to engage in cooperative consultation, integrate the NEPA process into early project planning and review activities, identify significant issues early in the process, and place appropriate time limits on the EIS process.
Yet, after more than 30 years of NEPA compliance, environmental streamlining procedures for federally funded highway projects are applied and implemented on an ad hoc basis. Procedures used to advance projects through the NEPA process vary, to some extent, by FHWA division office or even on a project-by-project basis. The need for a more systematic and efficient approach for environmental review is apparent.
Thanks to public will and government action, environmental streamlining has come to the forefront. Quantitative analyses of the NEPA project development process and practical applications of practices to facilitate a more streamlined process provide useful contributions to further understanding of the time involved in the NEPA process and how it can be reduced.
These studies also help with evaluating the performance of streamlining efforts, refining that evaluation, and determining whether opportunities exist to improve the overall process, in spite of other non-NEPA-related factors that may slow project delivery. With a firmer understanding of where we stand today, the NEPA project development process can and will be more effectively streamlined tomorrow.
Kreig Larson is a project development specialist with the FHWA Office of Project Development and Environmental Review in Washington, DC. He is the technical representative overseeing a number of research projects on environmental streamlining for that office and also is engaged in other FHWA streamlining activities. Prior to joining the FHWA headquarters, Larson was employed as an environmental planner for the California Department of Transportation. He holds a bachelor's degree in soil and water science from the University of California, Davis, and a master's in urban planning from the University of Southern California.
For more information, contact Kreig Larson at 202-366-2056.