NEPA Course Brings States And Tribes to the Table
That road building affects the natural and cultural environments is a given. The nature and extent of the impacts vary, however, so the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is needed to help decisionmakers balance environmental and human needs in transportation project development. NEPA contains statements of policies and goals that result in procedures to ensure that environmental information is made available to public officials and citizens before agencies make final decisions on infrastructure projects.
Perhaps nowhere is the NEPA process more important — or complex — than in the context of transportation development on tribal lands. "NEPA requirements are one of the biggest challenges that a transportation office faces," says Gary Stevig, assistant director and transportation planner for Chickaloon Native Village in Alaska. "The process costs time and money, but it's worth it. We need to protect the environment."
Mitigating a Unique Challenge for Tribes
The Indian Reservation Roads (IRR) program, jointly administered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, addresses the transportation needs of tribes by providing funds for planning, design, construction, and maintenance activities. To use the IRR funds, tribes need to comply with NEPA procedures. However, for tribes with small staffs to handle transportation projects, the NEPA process can be particularly challenging. "Whereas State agencies have separate departments and large staffs to handle construction, right-of-way, maintenance, etc., my director and do it all," Stevig says. "And reporting requirements are lengthier than for States."
That's where the National Highway Institute (NHI) comes in. An NHI course, NEPA and Transportation Decisionmaking (FHWA-NHI-142005), covers the FHWA policies and procedures for applying NEPA requirements to project development and decisionmaking processes related to transportation facilities. The course examines the evolution of environmental policy and the integration of social, environmental, and economic factors into the Federal framework of laws, regulations, policies, and guidance, ultimately leading to transportation projects that serve the best overall public interest.
Stevig attended a session in Anchorage, AK, in 2008. "Our tribe was first to apply NEPA under a new form of contract, a Federal highway agreement for Indian reservations," he says. "We've gone through our first NEPA project and found the process to be complex. But the NHI course provided critical information on how the NEPA process works, so we'll be better prepared in the future."
According to Stevig, the 3-day session format provides ample time for participants to practice applying the concepts to hypothetical transportation projects. "With training, too often you read the material in class, and then put the training manual on a shelf and never look at it again," he says. "But with NHI's NEPA course, you're not staring at text in a book. The instructors led us through exercises to help us connect the dots."
Participants learn the importance of a reasoned, collaborative process when developing and evaluating alternatives. They also learn how to balance an array of interests and values in making transportation decisions, and the milestones in transportation planning that link to the NEPA project development process. The instructors lay out the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders and discuss alternative dispute resolution.
"The importance of keeping your word was a clear message," Stevig says. "We're all being taught the same things, which makes for better partners with shared values. Interagency coordination through the NEPA process is bringing States and tribes together at the beginning of projects, so we can share local knowledge to ensure that graves won't be disturbed and habitat can be preserved."
The course targets planning and environmental professionals who participate in the transportation decisionmaking process, including FHWA staff, State departments of transportation and their consultants, environmental resource agencies, local governments, tribal officials, and metropolitan planning organizations.
"I've taken training on NEPA about five times through different organizations, and NHI's version is the most successful in ensuring that attendees fully understand how the process works," Stevig says. "I can't say enough about the level of expertise that NHI brings to training."
To schedule a session, visit www.nhi.fhwa.dot.gov.
John J. Sullivan IV is associate editor of Public Roads.