Linking Planning & NEPA

Early coordination with partner agencies, especially resource agencies, is a key to linking planning and NEPA. Allowing resource agencies to have early input into the development of corridor strategies creates a “scoping opportunity” to identify agency concerns and major resource issues that could result in fatal flaws in environmental impact analysis.

Resource agencies may not be able to make decisions or sign off on products during corridor planning as the level of detailed analysis may not be sufficient. However, their input can help reduce the likelihood of unforeseen resource issues delaying project development, and can result in more environmentally sensitive projects.

Suggestions for implementing this coordination include:

Define the Study Area

The geographic boundaries of the study area will affect which resource agencies need to be involved.

Examples

Through the Community and Environmental Transportation Acceptability Process (CETAP),the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) identified four corridors for highway and transit improvements and set up a partnership to allow a close working relationship with state and Federal resource agencies. This partnership enabled the agencies to work together to narrow the list of possible corridor alternatives. Procedural changes were encouraged during the transportation planning process for faster review of materials. The agency developed a Multispecies Habitat Conservation Plan to help identify and screen resource issues in the affected corridors.

SR 79 Realignment Project At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the 1994 NEPA/404 MOU provided a venue for regulatory agencies along with representatives from the local transportation commissions and municipalities to coordinate early in the project planning process. The NEPA 404/MOU is an agreement between Caltrans and several Federal agencies designed to foster agreement on NEPA review among the signatory agencies. Through the application of this process in the SR 79 Realignment Project, an environmentally harmful project alternative alignment was identified early and removed from consideration. A key factor in allowing the identification of resource issues was the availability of clear maps showing how project alternatives overlay with sensitive resources.

Caltrans Preliminary Environmental Analysis Reporting Process The Caltrans Preliminary Environmental Analysis Report (PEAR) process allows project sponsors to provides the initial environmental evaluation of a project and alternatives and is done systematically to get resource and environmental regulatory agencies involved with the process. A PEAR documents the issues likely to arise during the NEPA or CEQA stage; but it is not the appropriate vehicle for conducting and reporting detailed environmental analyses.

Central Orange County Corridor Major Investment Study The Central Orange County Major Investment Study includes a Technical Working Group with representatives from and other stakeholder agencies such as the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the Orange County Flood Control District and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). These agencies have not been able to provide decisions or sign-off during the planning phase, but are helping to identify major resource issues / fatal flaws in selecting corridor strategies.

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) provides an example at the regional level in California of early coordination with agencies in linking planning and NEPA. SACOG engages resource agencies to identify sensitive environmental areas during the development of the regional transportation plan.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) Efficient Transportation Decision Making (ETDM) effort involved development of a process for early and continuous resource agency input into FDOT environmental review, decision-making, and permitting process to make project delivery more efficient and less costly. The Agency Agreements page displays a list of Master Agreements and Funding Agreements, which have been executed by the FDOT and state and federal agencies participating in the ETDM Process.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT)’s Collaborative Environmental and Transportation Agreement for Streamlining (CETAS), established a formal working committee with representatives from ODOT and 10 Federal and state transportation, natural resource, cultural resource, and land use planning agencies. The goal of the CETAS group is to identify and implement collaborative opportunities to help each participating agency realize its mission through sound environmental stewardship, while providing for a safe and efficient transportation system. CETAS focuses on communication, participation, and early involvement in Environmental Assessments (EA) and Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for ODOT. As a result of CETAS, ODOT has added resource agency data, such as land use, to its existing transportation system geospatial data which helps ODOT avoid and minimize environmental impacts and delay during project planning and design.

The Parker Road Corridor Study is a pilot project in Denver, Colorado in which CDOT worked closely with resource agencies to identify potential environmental impacts from the Parker Road corridor. This study demonstrated the value of using a team approach to corridor planning, consisting of meeting face-to-face with resource agencies and developing a strong working relationship. The open dialogue led to management-level support by agencies and an eventual signing of a planning and environmental linkages (PEL) partnering agreement. The partnering agreement is a statewide agreement of 15 signatory agencies committed to the principles of PEL.

The Regional Outer Loop Corridor Feasibility Study is an evaluation of an outer loop network of transportation routes around the Dallas-Fort Worth region. The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) led the stakeholder outreach and engaged resource agency partners through the Transportation Resource Agency Consultation Environmental Streamlining (TRACES) initiative, a regional effort to improve communication and consultation with environmental resource agencies to the transportation planning process. NCTCOG also collaborated with resource agencies for their expertise and technical tools.

The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) engaged with resource agencies in the Libby North Corridor Study to discuss possible improvement options. These discussions were documented and recommendations noted. By working with its partners, MDT identified improvements that met public safety and environmental goals. MDT obtained information from the public and resource agencies prior to initiating formal environmental review.