Webtool Streamlines ESA Consultations
Under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), federally funded transportation projects must not jeopardize the existence of a threatened or endangered species or adversely modify critical habitat. As mandated by the act, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and State departments of transportation must submit biological assessments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service if a listed species may be affected by a transportation project. To help environmental and transportation professionals more easily develop these assessments and complete their consultations with Federal resource agencies, FHWA recently updated the online "ESA Webtool" with improved capabilities.
Traditionally, preparing biological assessments was a laborious activity. Format and process requirements varied by State, and finding good sample assessments was challenging. The lack of easy access to Federal data lengthened the writing process and increased the likelihood of inaccuracy. Sharing and managing files also was difficult.
In 2009, FHWA launched its ESA Webtool, which helped mitigate many of these problems. The tool streamlined the process for developing, submitting, and reviewing biological assessments. The time savings and increased coordination has simplified project delivery and improved relationships with the resource agencies. The resulting consistency across States and projects and the tool's ability to track the development of assessments across the country have helped to expedite regulatory review and decisionmaking.
Upgrades in 2011 added supplementary features to help users access data more easily, share best practices, and coordinate with partners during the development of assessments. The upgrades include a standardized template, along with detailed instructions; a secure location for online consultation (file cabinet); and a search functionality based on geographic location, project type, and species.
One of the most popular new features is the virtual consultation room, or "file cabinet," says Mary Gray, an environmental program specialist in FHWA's Office of Project Development and Environmental Review, who developed the Web site and led the update effort. The file cabinet is designed to improve coordination, collaboration, and administrative documentation. It enables users to upload the assessments and other process documents from all over the country, facilitating project stakeholder collaboration and work on shared draft documents during the development stages.
The file cabinet creates an exclusive email address for each project to improve communication among all stakeholders. In addition, a calendar tracks each project's history, regardless of timeline, a feature that improves continuity over the life of a project.
Trevin Taylor, an environmental engineer with the Washington State Department of Transportation, is a frequent Webtool user. He says he especially likes the file cabinet because it "facilitates the entire biological assessment and consultation process, including tracking, submitting, editing, and keeping up with contacts."
Updated search functions enable users to see biological assessments, opinions, and letters of concurrence in their geographic areas that are underway or have been completed. This functionality helps avoid duplicated efforts and wasted staff time, shortening the review process.
Another enhancement enables users to click on a U.S. map and be taken to a page dedicated to a particular geographic region. The page displays information on the regional office, State contacts, key locations, and species specific to that area. If a new species has been listed, the page will provide related national news and a photograph of the species. A significant part of the upgrade involved linking the Webtool to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service site so users can easily access lists of species and download information about them into their assessments.
"The Webtool saves us a ton of time and money," Taylor says. "Plus it's available to everyone, doesn't cost users anything, and requires minimal training."
Other Webtool users agree, according to FHWA's Gray, who says response to the upgrades has been universally positive. "People love this site. It is so user-friendly, and people really appreciate that."
For more information and to access the Webtool, visit www.environment.fhwa.dot.gov/esawebtool/default.aspx.
Kate Sullivan is a contributing editor for Public Roads.