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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Mar/Apr 2008

Mar/Apr 2008
Issue No:
Vol. 71 No. 5
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

PEL - A Path to Streamlining And Stewardship

by Gina Barberio, Rachael Barolsky, Michael Culp, and Robert Ritter

FHWA's Planning and Environment Linkages program works to ease project delivery through efficient and integrated decisionmaking.

(Above) One goal of linking Transportation planning and NEPA is reducing the impacts of projects on sensitive areas, such as this two-lane road through a mountainous area. Photo: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) requires Federal agencies to consider, analyze, and document environmental and other effects of their proposed actions or projects prior to implementing them. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in cooperation with State departments of transportation (DOTs), complies with this requirement through an integrated decisionmaking process. For many major transportation projects, this project development process is documented through preparation of environmental impact statements (EISs) or environmental assessments.

Since NEPA's enactment nearly 40 years ago, the time it takes to complete an EIS has nearly tripled for a variety of reasons. According to FHWA, a typical EIS took 2.5 years on average to perform in the 1970s, 4.5 years in the 1980s, and about 5 years in the 1990s. A typical EIS process currently takes an average of 6.5 years to complete. FHWA considers the average project that takes longer than 5 years to complete an EIS process to be delayed.

The NEPA process can affect project decisions and delivery in various ways but does not necessarily add significantly to the overall project delivery time when conducted concurrently with other project and environmental requirements. The NEPA and preliminary engineering stage of project development typically makes up a major portion of the overall project delivery process. Therefore, highway officials naturally look to this stage for time-saving opportunities. According to FHWA, complex highway projects take about 13 years to move from initial planning through environmental review, final design, construction, and opening to traffic. On average, planning consumes 2.3 years; NEPA and preliminary engineering, 5 years; final design and right-of-way, 3 years; and construction, 3 years.

Research such as Reasons for EIS Project Delays, published by FHWA in 2000, reveals that project delays generally attributable to the NEPA process are actually the result of a variety of reasons. These include a lack of funding or priority, stakeholder and/or local opposition, insufficient political support, project complexity, changes in agency priorities, environmental concerns expressed by resource agencies, and other issues inherent in the NEPA process itself. Because the NEPA decisionmaking process also will include the consideration, coordination, and documentation related to compliance with other environmental laws, time might be added to project completion. Document legal sufficiency and fear of litigation can contribute to the time it takes to complete the EIS process for certain projects.

To address the effects of these various factors, FHWA has established and continues to find ways to streamline the project development process. In 2005 the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) opened the door to Federal regulations on statewide and metropolitan transportation planning, and linking of the planning and NEPA processes. In fiscal year 2007, as one of its "Vital Few" goals, FHWA called for reducing the median processing time for EISs to 3 years. This goal of 36 months also continues into fiscal year 2008. Together, these actions helped bring about a new approach, known as Planning and Environment Linkages (PEL), which aims to streamline the project development and environmental review processes by improving coordination among stakeholders.

Tightening the Links

PEL emphasizes the linking of planning and NEPA activities — specifically, solidifying the connection between systems-level planning and project-level decisionmaking. The purpose of PEL is to coordinate statewide and metropolitan transportation planning with the NEPA process to streamline project delivery and improve planning- and project-level decisionmaking.

Major transportation projects, such as this highway interchange, can take 13 years to complete on average. Exactly how much time environmental reviews contribute to the delay is the subject of ongoing research.

PEL enables agencies to better communicate and coordinate during project decisionmaking. The approach provides a broader perspective that reaches beyond NEPA requirements to include consultation with resource agencies and others concerning mitigation, conservation plans, regional habitat mapping, and more.

PEL's most pointed goal is to complete certain activities in the planning process by encouraging planning and environmental staff at transportation and resource agencies to share tools and improve coordination. The approach minimizes duplication of efforts and reduces delays in transportation improvements, and can make the entire life cycle of a transportation project more seamless and sensitive to environmental resources.

PEL encourages agencies to adopt an integrated approach, which addresses transportation and environmental goals while considering quality of life.

One way agencies can implement PEL in project development is through tiering of NEPA documents. The planning rule implementing SAFETEA-LU states that "by agreement of the NEPA lead agencies. Integration may be accomplished through tiering, incorporating the subarea or corridor planning study into the draft [EIS] or Environmental Assessment, or other means that the NEPA lead agencies deem appropriate." The rule explains linkages between planning and NEPA such as information sharing and data collection early on and provides nonbinding guidance on how to improve decisionmaking and incorporate products from transportation planning into the NEPA process.

These linkages also are encouraged as part of integrated planning and consultation, which involve forging closer connections between transportation systems planning and resource planning. The former encompasses analysis of strategies, project locations, and conceptual designs that generate outputs such as long-range, statewide, and metropolitan plans at the systems level. The latter comprises plans for land use, watersheds, habitats, and natural resources.

SAFETEA-LU requires transportation agencies to consult with resource agencies when developing long-range transportation plans. The agencies can work together to integrate or coordinate their plans. Transportation agencies also are required to include a discussion of potential mitigation activities and locations. Sharing geographic information systems (GIS) is one example of how transportation and natural resource agencies can share information and technical analysis and allow for data sharing. For example, staff from State DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) can use GIS and environmental mapping to overlay natural and historical resources with proposed transportation facilities.

One strategy for integrating systems-level planning with resource protection is to tag opportunities to address environmental impacts early in project development and identify mitigation options for the highest priority needs in an ecosystem. Eco-Logical: An Ecosystem Approach to Developing Infra-structure Projects, a publication by FHWA and eight other Federal agencies and offices, offers a nonprescriptive approach to increasing interagency conservation efforts. The document includes a process for collecting, sharing, analyzing, and presenting planning data so agencies can design infrastructure that is more environmentally sensitive.

State and local agencies already are applying the PEL approach at different stages of the transportation decisionmaking process. They have developed a number of strategies, guidelines, and analytical tools to better coordinate their planning and environmental review processes. The following examples illustrate strategies that can improve internal and external coordination of systems-level planning with project-level decisionmaking.

This figure illustrates the planning and environmental linkages in the transportation decisionmaking processes, which are the foundation of the PEL approach.

Change Management

A critical component of the PEL approach is defining and implementing procedures and technologies that can help agencies improve coordination between systems planning and project-level activities. Executive-level commitment and leadership can strengthen support for a more comprehensive process among departments or divisions. A bottom-up approach also can be effective through adoption of PEL practices that result in improved coordination between staff and lead to less duplication of effort. Regardless of the approach, once agency staffers are aware of PEL, they can use a variety of PEL resources to establish and document new procedures and guidance for environmental linkages during planning, including deploying methods for environmental analysis in planning, involving key stakeholders, and handing off product planning to project development staff.

In 2006, FHWA, NatureServe, and Defenders of Wildlife hosted three workshops, titled "Linking Conservation and Transportation Planning," in Denver, CO; Little Rock, AR; and Phoenix, AZ. The workshops emphasized sharing information, tools, and methods among agencies at the local, State, regional, and national levels so that conservation strategies can be incorporated earlier in the transportation planning process. According to Team Leader Shari Schaftlein in the FHWA Office of Project Development and Environmental Review, "Workshop participants left with a better understanding of each others' objectives and assets, and with the expectation that their agencies would be able to work together more effectively."

Since 2003, FHWA has hosted more than 20 workshops across the country on linking planning and NEPA to foster fundamental changes in the culture that underlies transportation planning and project development. The workshop series is aimed at U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) modal administrations, State DOTs, MPOs, transit operators, and State and Federal resource agencies. Participants developed action plans that identified opportunities for better integration within the decisionmaking process and outlined actions that DOTs and their partners can take to forge stronger linkages between planning and NEPA. Examples of actions designed to strengthen linkages include hosting regular meetings with transportation planners and environmental staff internally and with transportation agencies, resource agencies, MPOs, and others externally. Also developing data and analysis tools that include resource data and sharing them among transportation and resource agencies can create further opportunities for integration.

Agencies can use various approaches to integrate planning and environmental processes, as illustrated in the overlapping of the two spheres.

Data and Analysis Tools

Data and analysis tools such as checklists, databases, and GIS can provide planners, environmental scientists, and engineers with more detailed information about proposed projects and their surrounding areas. These tools can facilitate data sharing within organizations and among agencies, enhance understanding of projects, minimize miscommunication between partners, and support more informed decisionmaking. The best tools support access by multiple agencies and their departments so all stakeholders have common and current information.

In early 2001, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) began developing its Efficient Transportation Decision Making (ETDM) process, which successfully linked FDOT's planning and project development processes in 2004. ETDM links land use, transportation, and environmental resource planning initiatives through early agency and community involvement. The success of the decisionmaking process is partly due to creation of Environmental Technical Advisory Teams (ETATs) and an Internet-accessible GIS Environmental Screening Tool. Analysts can use the tool to overlay GIS data on land use, wetlands, historic sites, infrastructure, and other environmental, economic, or community characteristics with proposed transportation projects to identify potential areas of concern. FDOT uses the tool to identify critical environmental and cultural issues early, involve resource agencies and the public in the transportation planning process, supply the data needed for informed decisions, and reduce the time and cost associated with project development and permitting.

PEL Success in Michigan

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments' (SEMCOG) process for integrating environmental analysis into its transportation planning offers an example of the PEL approach in action.

In March 2007, SEMCOG updated its 2030 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) with analyses of potential impacts of planned transportation projects on sensitive resources. The council mapped RTP projects, established buffers around them, and overlaid environmental features using GIS. The environmental analyses were used as screening tools to flag possible areas of concern, which were evaluated in greater detail at the project level.

SEMCOG then developed a series of guidelines for mitigating impacts. Below are selected features of the overall guidelines (more specific guidelines are pegged to water resources, wetlands, floodplains, woodlands, and other environmental areas of concern).

Planning and Design

Employ context sensitive solutions (CSS) from the earliest point possible in project development. CSS is a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders to develop a transportation facility that fits its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources. Early and frequent involvement of the public, community officials, and others affected by the project is essential.

Identify the project's places of potential impact, including the immediate project area, anticipated borrow/fill areas, haul roads, prep sites, and other locations.

Conduct an inventory to determine whether the project could affect any environmentally sensitive resources.

Conduct a preconstruction meeting with community officials and contractors to discuss environmental protection. Communicate agreed-upon preservation goals to everyone working on the project. Discuss any special requirements (such as ordinances, site plan reviews) with the community.

Avoid impacts on environmental resources by limiting the project scope or redesigning the project (for example, alignment, design speed, retaining walls, cross section narrowing).

Where impacts cannot be avoided, develop mitigation strategies as much as possible. Where required, coordinate evaluation of possible impacts, exploration of alternatives, and development of mitigation strategies with Federal, State, and local authorities.

Integrate stormwater management into site design. Adopt low-impact practices that infiltrate stormwater into the ground (for example, swales, rain gardens, native plantings).

Construction and Maintenance

Insert special requirements addressing sensitivity of environmental resources into plans, specifications, and estimates provided to contractors. Note activities that are not allowed in sensitive areas (such as stockpiling, clearing, equipment storage).

Confine construction and staging to the smallest areas necessary and clearly mark boundaries.

Use the least obtrusive construction techniques and materials.

Install construction flagging or fencing around environmental resources.

Sequence construction activities to minimize land disturbance at all times, especially during the rainy or winter seasons for natural resource protection, and during the high-use season for resources open to the public.

When using heavy equipment, be mindful of the potential for uncovering archeological remains.

Before site disturbance occurs, implement erosion control management best practices to capture sediments and control runoff. Minimize the extent and duration of bare ground. Establish permanent vegetative cover immediately after grading is complete. Prevent tracking of sediment onto paved surfaces.

Incorporate stormwater management. Prevent direct runoff of water containing sediment into waterways; all runoff from the work area should drain through sedimentation control devices prior to entering a water body. During and after construction, sweep streets to reduce sediment entering the storm drainage system.

Do not dispose of spoil material in or near natural or cultural resources. Properly handle, store, and dispose of hazardous materials (for example, fuel, oil, paint, solvents, epoxy) and use fewer hazardous materials when possible. Implement spill control and cleanup practices for leaks and spills. Use dry cleanup methods (such as absorbents) if possible. Never allow a hazardous spill to enter the storm drain system or waterways.

Keep equipment in good working order and free of leaks. Avoid equipment maintenance or fueling near sensitive areas. If mobile fueling is required, keep a spill kit on the fueling truck. Avoid hosing down construction equipment at the site unless the water is contained and does not enter the storm drain system or waterways.

Employ salt management techniques to reduce the impact of salt on waterways.

Use integrated pest management if using pesticides during maintenance operations.

"The ETDM process has enabled us to be more resourceful by focusing our efforts on the most important issues in project development," says FDOT District One Secretary Stan Cann. "By identifying and resolving issues prior to the production phase, we are improving project delivery and realizing cost and time savings."

Another example of a GIS tool is the Texas Ecological Assessment Protocol (TEAP), developed by the Texas Environmental Resource Stewards, a group of Federal and State transportation and resource agencies. TEAP is a planning- and screening-level assessment tool that uses existing data from the statewide GIS grid to identify ecologically important resources throughout Texas. The results can be used in project planning to identify areas for more detailed field investigations, and in mitigation discussions to designate ecologically important areas that should be avoided, minimize impacts on those areas, and compensate for unavoidable impacts.

Analysts use Florida's Environmental Screening Tool (EST) to overlay GIS data on land uses, wetlands, historic sites, infrastructure, and other environmental, economic, or community characteristics with proposed transportation projects to identify potential areas of concern.


Interagency coordination is another critical element of PEL. Transportation and resource agencies can create working groups, task forces, or committees early in the planning process to exchange information and make collaborative decisions. In 2005, North Carolina created the North Carolina Interagency Leadership Team (ILT), consisting of the top leadership from 10 Federal and State agencies, to identify concerns and issues facing transportation, the environment, and the economy. In support of the ILT, in March 2007 the FHWA North Carolina Division and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) hosted more than 100 attendees from FHWA, NCDOT, MPOs, rural planning organizations, and State and Federal resource agencies to discuss transportation, conservation, and strategic resource planning efforts. The purpose of the meeting was to educate resource agency and transportation leadership and staff on integrated planning initiatives, concepts, and consultation and mitigation requirements in the SAFETEA-LU final planning rule.

Another approach to formalize coordination is through the development of memoranda of understanding or agreement (MOUs or MOAs) defining how partners can link processes. MOUs and MOAs may be useful for establishing roles and responsibilities and outlining expectations for transportation and resource agencies. Transportation agencies also can fund staff positions in resource agencies to support environmental considerations during planning rather than limiting these concerns strictly to environmental review, consultation, and permitting activities. To advance this approach to streamlining, SAFETEA-LU expanded the ability of agencies to fund positions to enhance transportation planning.

Process Improvements

DOTs are developing various ways to inform and systematize the transportation decisionmaking and environmental planning processes. In March 2007 the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) issued a document, Linking Planning and the National Environmental Policy Act Guidance, that addresses how data, analysis, and products gathered in transportation planning can be incorporated into project-level environmental reviews to avoid redundant work. The document also discusses how the corridor visioning process can feed into NEPA decisionmaking. Consultation and coordination with resource and regulatory agencies is a key component of the guidance. Several other States also have revised or created new project development manuals to reflect integration of environmental issues into transportation decisionmaking.

FDOT's ETDM is another example of a process improvement. FDOT created a performance management system to track quantitative elements, such as timelines to complete certain milestones that occur in planning, programming, or project development. The system also tracks qualitative elements, such as responses to stakeholder surveys, through an online, automated system. Once completed, this online system will generate a report on the performance of FDOT and participating agencies relative to meeting critical timelines and review periods during the planning, programming, and NEPA phases, and on making better decisions through improved coordination and consultation and obtaining higher quality data.

Buddy Cunill, FDOT's environmental program development coordinator, noted that ETDM's performance management information "will indicate how well the process is functioning as an environmental streamlining tool and provide data for discussion between participating agencies on what is working and not working, and how FDOT can improve the ETDM process."

Corridor and Systems-Level Activities

Improved Linkage Between Transportation Systems Planning and the NEPA, a report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, explains that corridor and subarea studies focus on a portion of a State or metropolitan area, enabling consideration of transportation needs, potential solutions, and their impacts in more detail than is possible at the statewide or metropolitan level, without moving directly to detailed, project-level analysis.

Transportation planners can use corridor and subarea studies as steppingstones between the systems-planning scale of analysis and the project-specific NEPA process. Although these studies can be resource-intensive and require significant lead time to implement, as noted in CDOT's Linking Planning and the National Environmental Policy Act Guidance, they have the potential to reduce the time and money required for individual project reviews. Corridor studies can provide opportunities to develop coordinated environmental programs and mitigation efforts.

Agencies also can integrate systems-level planning and NEPA requirements through tiering. Tiering enables project sponsors to conduct project planning and NEPA activities for large transportation projects in two phases: a first-tier study, which addresses overall corridor issues such as general location, mode choice, and areawide air quality and land use impacts; and a second-tier study, which focuses on site-specific impacts, costs, and mitigation measures. First-tier efforts result in a NEPA document with sufficient detail for corridor-level decisions, whereas second-tier studies culminate in traditional project-level environmental documents.

In 2000 the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and FHWA chose to tier the I-70 improvement study to enhance decisionmaking and expedite implementation of the selected strategy. MoDOT was concerned that, under the traditional EIS process, delays might occur due to the length and complexity of the study corridor. With tiering, MoDOT anticipated that some decisions could be made on a corridorwide basis as a result of a first-tier study. The department conducted more detailed analyses in the second-tier study based on the decisions resulting from the first-tier effort.

Colorado and other States are contributing to the body of knowledge on PEL, spurred partly by their need to build projects in challenging or sensitive terrain, such as this mountain highway.

Lessons Learned

According to Schaftlein at FHWA, agencies should understand that implementation of the PEL approach will be an ongoing, long-term process. Efforts to improve coordination between systems-level planning and project-level decisionmaking will continue to evolve as practitioners develop better strategies and tools.

Lessons learned from PEL implementation to date reveal common challenges that include the following:

  • Determining the appropriate level of environmental detail to document in the planning process that also can be used in the NEPA/EIS process
  • Communicating needs and goals between planning and environmental offices or among transportation agencies, resource agencies, MPOs, and local jurisdictions
  • Addressing constraints on staffing, funding, and information
  • Identifying how resource agencies can become involved early in the planning process
  • Determining performance metrics and measuring the progress and benefits of integrating planning and project development processes

Additional Resources

A variety of resources are available to help agencies adopt PEL approaches that are tailored to their own needs, organizational structures, and processes. FHWA developed a Web site specifically about PEL ( that contains resources and tools for implementation, including how to get started; effective practices; and relevant legislation, regulations, and guidance. In addition, FHWA's "Re:NEPA" community of practice ( includes the topic area Transportation Planning and NEPA Linkages, which offers an open, online exchange of information.

In spring 2007, FHWA introduced a PEL technical assistance program designed to provide focused, applied aid to State and local agencies already working on implementing PEL concepts. The program provides State and local transportation and resource agencies with guidelines, decisionmaking strategies, analytical tools, technical assistance, and financial support to link the processes of transportation planning and environmental planning and review.

"The PEL financial support we received is enabling us to utilize state-of-the-art tools to identify locations we should avoid and/or mitigate as warranted by the unavoidable direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of our regional transportation investments," says Craig Casper, transportation director for the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments in Colorado. "This will meet the spirit, not just the letter, of the new requirements contained in SAFETEA-LU. The [financial support from FHWA] will help us harmonize the varied ongoing planning efforts within El Paso and Pueblo Counties by forming a long-term, multiregional partnership to analyze, coordinate, and potentially consolidate mitigation opportunities for three long-range transportation planning regions — two MPOs and one rural."

Blasting to create tunnels such as this one can have important implications for the environment, something that might be accounted for more fully with the PEL approach. Photo: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

FHWA is working with seven States that expressed interest: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Activities are geared toward both State DOT and MPO involvement and may include workshops designed to better integrate planning and environmental processes, GIS tools and procedures to improve data coordination with resource agencies, and regional ecosystem-based mitigation. Results from these activities will be featured on the PEL Web site.

In addition to providing Web resources and individual technical assistance, FHWA is working closely with the National Highway Institute and National Transit Institute to update planning and environmental courses to include PEL concepts. Participants will be able to learn how PEL can be incorporated into their daily activities to benefit their business practices.

The PEL approach holds great promise for helping transportation agencies balance safety, mobility, environmental, community, and economic goals. "We will continue to improve upon the information developed from our PEL grant and use it as a base for a 'green' infrastructure plan," notes Casper.

FHWA also will continue to work closely with States and MPOs to provide technical assistance and disseminate effective practices as they continue to mature.

Gina Barberio is an environmental protection specialist at USDOT's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center). She supports environmental streamlining activities at FHWA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and policy analysis for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Rachael Barolsky is a community planner with the Volpe Center. Her work focuses on strategic outreach and stakeholder coordination related to environmental streamlining, transportation planning, and program development for Federal agencies, including FHWA and FTA.

Michael Culp is an environmental protection specialist with the FHWA Office of Project Development and Environmental Review. He focuses on policy development, training, and technical assistance to help transportation agencies with their environmental stewardship initiatives, and on better linking of transportation planning and NEPA processes.

Robert Ritter is the team leader in the FHWA Office of Planning. A certified planner and professional engineer with 14 years of experience, he leads a team to help transportation officials and decisionmakers resolve the increasingly complex issues they face when addressing transportation needs in their communities.

For more information, visit /index.asp or contact Rachael Barolsky at 617-494-6352 or