A major highway reconstruction in Orlando, FL, provides clues on how to streamline environmental studies.
How often does it take only 28 months to develop and approve an environmental impact statement (EIS) for a major transportation project? In August 2000, the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Florida Division Office signed the Record of Decision on the EIS for reconstruction and extension of the John Young Parkway in Orlando, FL. Only 28 months had passed since the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) published its Notice of Intent in the Federal Register in May 1998. The star of this story—FDOT—had performed the EIS on schedule, in time to move into producing the final construction plans.
The Florida project involves widening 7.2 kilometers (4.5 miles) of a four-lane road to six lanes, a new urban interchange, and new alignment of 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) of six-lane highway. Local government agencies praised FHWA for providing transportation leadership while championing environmental stewardship during the decisionmaking process.
According to Vicki Vargo, Orlando City Commissioner, District 3, "Traffic congestion is the number one issue in Greater Orlando. Another major concern of citizens is growth management and the need to preserve our quality of life. When the idea arose to connect two roads through 100 acres [40 hectares] of vacant public parkland, FHWA worked with the community to change the plans and preserve the land. FHWA, working along with citizens and local government, rerouted the road. Their actions resulted in saving 100 acres for the development of parkland in urban Orlando.
"On Saturday, January 18, 2003, city leaders hosted the grand opening of Trotters Park. Festivities included an exhibition game by College Park Little League. The acreage also hosts youth soccer fields and a Miracle baseball field for handicapped children. The northeasterly 20 acres [8 hectares] are home to Freedom Ride, an equestrian program for children with disabilities. We appreciate FHWA's commitment in working with citizens in the City of Orlando to relieve traffic congestion and preserve our quality of life."
Experiences gained during this EIS and other environmental evaluation and preliminary engineering studies performed for this project could provide valuable insights for implementing FHWA's current environmental streamlining initiative and for integrating the planning and environmental processes. The step-by-step success story that follows shows how this EIS can provide a model for the future.
Needs Statement: The Bottom Line
Environmental documents required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the permit application under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's Section 404 process for maintaining water quality require a thorough transportation needs statement. A solid transportation needs analysis of roadway capacity, safety, operational efficiency, and networking is the first step in any transportation project. For an EIS-level project, the needs statement is even more critical.
Although NEPA studies are preceded by development and approval of a Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) and a short-term Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), rarely is a thorough and complete needs analysis performed. Further, the problems that a proposed action is expected to solve and mitigate often remain unclear, as do the projection of future results at this point.
During the John Young Parkway EIS study, needs from the transportation network's standpoint were modeled through the local metropolitan planning organization's approved and validated Florida Standard Urban Transportation Modeling System. Operating efficiency also was modeled through the methodology prescribed in the Transportation Research Board's Highway Capacity Manual. Through these and other modeling and simulation programs, all design alternatives—including the "no build" option—were modeled to determine the exact benefits to capacity, operational efficiency, and safety.
The benefits from this needs analysis presented a clear picture to all interested parties regardless of their position on the proposed project. The end result of such a thorough analysis was the establishment of an undisputable need for the proposed facility.
By integrating the planning and the NEPA environmental process, a detailed needs statement and analysis during the LRTP and TIP process reduced the length of the study process and also provided a mechanism for identifying fatal flaws at the earliest time possible.
For FHWA's current environmental streamlining initiative, agreement by all resource agencies on the transportation needs for potentially significant projects can provide a foundation for identifying solutions as the process continues.
Public Involvement: Democracy at Work
Public involvement has evolved as an integral part of the transportation decisionmaking process. The public's involvement often is not fully appreciated, and the process sometimes becomes just another formality and exercise. But a project that truly enjoys public support will move more quickly through all EIS phases. With current media technology and the availability of desktop publishing, numerous means are available for reaching the public.
For the John Young Parkway EIS study, the need for public involvement was based on three requirements: mandatory, substantive, and emotional.
Mandatory Requirements. Under Florida statutes, the proposed John Young Parkway reconstruction and extension was considered to be a major transportation project. Consequently, the State statutes required a formal public hearing. Since the project is federally funded, and it was determined to be an EIS-level evaluation, NEPA also demanded public involvement. An affected low-income neighborhood with a possible minority status was one of the major concerns, because the project had been stopped in the past when Orange County, FL, was working on it. Additionally, when working with this group, there might be other types of requirements that would need to be met, depending on the neighborhood classification.
Given these potential and other mandatory requirements, the study team from the onset gave special attention to all procedural requirements, such as the timing of the kickoff public meeting, publishing notice of the meeting, meeting other legal advertisement requirements, and providing notifications to property owners and business owners and operators. The goal was to ensure that the project would not be challenged in court at a later date because of procedural errors.
Through FHWA's Florida Division Office, the team sought help from the Civil Rights team at FHWA's Resource Center, Atlanta. The active involvement of these division engineering and environmental specialists not only helped determine the appropriate neighborhood classification for moving forward on the project, but it helped address the concerns of people in the affected neighborhoods.
Substantive Needs. No other public projects affect our way of living more than changes to the highway system. To construct any roadway system, the immediate need is acquiring the right-of-way, which is most likely a transportation agency's responsibility.
In addition to the real property issue, highway noise affecting residential homeowners adjacent to the roadway is more urgent than ever before. Business owners and operators worry about changes in access classification and design, which may affect their driveway connections. Air quality due to mobile emissions is another urgent issue—and a regional one. All of these issues are real and need actual engineering design solutions.
With the John Young Parkway project, the study team employed a wide range of methodologies to address these issues. The project manager and a right-of-way relocation specialist conducted individual meetings with homeowners and business owners and operators to resolve specific concerns and offer solutions. A noise specialist joined the project manager in consulting individual homeowners and homeowner associations. Such individual and small group meetings not only identified the real issues but also built trust between the study team and affected parties.
Another strategy was to subdivide a non-agreeable (controversial) issue until a common agreeable sub-issue was identified and then to work back up to the original "bigger issue." With this approach, a consensus was reached on even the most seemingly controversial issues. The key for making this process effective was to keep a solution-oriented focus.
Emotional Needs. Often on projects the most vocal person or organization does not necessarily even reside adjacent to the roadway. In addition to substantive needs that these people or groups may have, it is vital to keep them informed and to consult with them throughout the process. They typically belong to an advocacy group and they are the eyes and voices of some community members. They often have important information, and taking the time to reach out to them and keep them informed is critical to easing the process.
With the John Young Parkway project, the team was able to work with community activists and other concerned citizens by taking a proactive approach. Once these groups and citizens were identified, the project team contacted them immediately and set up face-to-face meetings. The project team also employed the strategy of going out of the DOT office and conducting the meetings at locations and places suggested by the citizens.
Teamwork: Engineering And Environment
Everyone knows the buzzword, "teamwork." However, practicing it in a real-world situation is more difficult than one might expect. To achieve
a truly balanced team approach, FDOT found that an institutionalized team structure must be established.
FDOT District Five's Environmental Management Section, which was responsible for all preliminary engineering and NEPA studies, employed the concept of a team that included a project manager/engineer and an environmental scientist. The project manager was responsible for all project scheduling, engineering design, and cost. The environmental scientist had equal authority over any concepts proposed by the engineer. Conversely, both the project engineer and the environmental scientist had to agree on and sign all environmental documents and reports.
This institutionalized structure ensured that the environmental scientist's input was not set aside and ignored during the project development process. The teamwork between the engineering and environmental professionals ensured a focused effort without sidetracking during development of the project concept.
Upon establishing the project team, another key factor in the successful outcome was getting senior management to sanction the team. Management staff members had to trust and empower their professional people in the decisionmaking process without micromanaging their daily activities. In return, the study team was proactive in keeping management informed on issues and objectives through the institutionalized monthly production meeting.
Cross training engineering and environmental staff members provides a comprehensive common background so that they can truly work together. FDOT's Environmental Management Office offers comprehensive environmental analysis and evaluation training courses to both environmental and engineering professionals. Through this training, engineering staffs are well-informed on all environmental issues facing transportation projects.
Streamlining: Efficient Decisionmaking
To fulfill all NEPA requirements, more than 15 subject areas including air quality, water quality (storm water), wetlands, wildlife and habitat, and cultural resources (both historical and archeological) must be addressed. NEPA further requires that more than half a dozen Federal and State regulatory agencies need to be consulted.
Traditionally, the approach is to prepare an assessment report and submit it to a resource agency for formal review. Once the formal reviews and comments are completed, the original document is revised. Finally, a revised report is returned to the agency for further review and comment. Downtime during this reviewing process tends to be long. Multiple agency involvement and conflicting review comments inevitably prolong the downtime and process.
From the start of the John Young Parkway project, the study team realized the delays possible with the traditional reviewing and revising format. The team, working with FHWA's Florida Division Office, employed a concurrent review, revise, and resolve methodology for documents. In this concurrent process, any questions and comments from reviewers were relayed to the study team immediately. Upon receiving the information, the study team would start to work on that particular issue.
Also, the study team continuously updated the reviewer when progress was made and additional information was obtained. By the time the official inspection report with review comments was issued, a majority of all issues already had been discussed and resolved. There was virtually no downtime between review and resubmit phases.
The study team carried this concept to its coordination with each resource agency and local government agencies. The team's experience with the concurrent review/revise/resolve process verifies that this streamlining example significantly reduced the time required and also increased the participation of the community, resource organizations, and local agencies. In addition, the concurrent methodology can be a major factor in expediting the process by establishing a reviewing timeline between State and Federal agencies.
Model for Streamlining Environmental Studies
- Begin by solidly modeling transportation needs and integrating this process with the NEPA process to reduce the time involved and enable fatal flaws to be identified early.
- Ensure teamwork by requiring that the project engineer and environmental scientist agree on project scheduling, engineering design, cost, and the environmental reports.
- Employ a concurrent review process to avoid downtime between the review and resubmit phases.
- Create an effective public involvement process by paying special attention to: (1) mandatory requirements such as timing of the public meeting; (2) substantive needs by taking advantage, for example, of the expertise of a right-of-way specialist and subdividing controversial issues until you find common ground; and (3) emotional needs by working proactively with advocacy groups.
- Seek assistance when necessary (e.g., from FHWA's Civil Rights Team to deal with any potentially explosive issues).
Tianjia Tang, Ph.D., currently serves as the air quality specialist in FHWA's Southern Resource Center in Atlanta, GA. His focus is on mobile emission factor and dispersion modeling, and the integration of air quality modeling with travel demand forecasting. Prior to his current position, he was a project engineer/manager with FDOT where he also served as a senior environmental scientist. His main responsibility was in project development, including preliminary engineering design/planning and NEPA. On the John Young Parkway Reconstruction and Extension project, Dr. Tang served as the project manager and project engineer. He has a bachelor's degree in engineering from the University of Central Florida and a Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas.
Steve Tonjes is an environmental scientist with FDOT. He started out conducting environmental analyses and writing NEPA documents and has since added work in wetland and endangered species permitting, coordination of departmental compliance with commitments made in permits and in NEPA documents, and mitigation contract management. Prior to his current position, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard as a bridge permits administrator and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Endangered Species in Washington, DC, preparing biological opinions. On the John Young Parkway Reconstruction and Extension project, Tonjes served as the reviewing environmental scientist. He has a B.S. in zoology from the University of Michigan and an M.S. from Oregon State University.
For more information, contact Tianjia Tang, 61 Forsyth Street, SW, Suite 17T26, Atlanta, GA 30303; email@example.com; 404-562-3673.