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Environmental Review Toolkit
Accelerating Project Delivery

Evaluating the Performance of Environmental Streamlining:
Development of a NEPA baseline for Measuring Continuous Performance


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There have only been a few studies of note conducted during recent years that examined the time period and/or cost required for the delivery of transportation projects, or examined what component of that entire time period or cost is attributable to the NEPA process. Some of the key research studies in this regard to date are presented below. It should be noted, however, that these studies do not necessarily reflect a complete bibliography of related research.

Most of the research in this regard has been conducted out of concern expressed in Congress about the amount of time and money expended on the NEPA process, and how much that process impacts upon the cost and delivery time of highway projects. For instance, the General Accounting Office (GAO) presented a report to Congress in 1994 concerning the effects of the NEPA and Section 404 permitting processes on the implementation of highway projects, as well as any differences in those effects resulting from attempts to integrate both processes. [1] In reality, the GAO study was an effort to evaluate the ability to assess reductions in delay attributable to several regional environmental streamlining initiatives that existed even before the environmental streamlining initiative of TEA-21 was enacted.

The GAO study stated that "on most highway projects, FHWA and the states have taken from 2 to 8 years to complete the NEPA and section 404 reviews. " As part of the study, seven FHWA divisions and 13 state DOTs were surveyed, resulting in the identification of 76 highway projects for which environmental reviews were conducted and completed during the 1988 - 1993 period. The study concluded that the average NEPA review process among all 76 projects took 4. 4 years. Of that total, 32 projects also required Section 404 permits, and averaged 5. 6 years to complete both the NEPA and Section 404 permit reviews under separate review processes. No information regarding the length of only the NEPA process for the 32 projects requiring Section 404 permits was presented in the study.

The GAO study notes that "although the agencies have developed the integrated processes to expedite the NEPA and section 404 reviews, they have not developed a system to evaluate their success. " The need for baseline data on the amount of time needed to complete reviews under the traditional processes was noted, as was the need for developing plans to track projects' time frames under the integrated processes. The average time frames established in that study for the NEPA and combined NEPA and Section 404 processes were developed to satisfy the need for a baseline condition against which to track and compare time frames associated with an integrated review process. On the other hand, insufficient data existed at that time to develop an average time frame for the integrated process, although the study did establish a basic framework for evaluating the integrated process in the future.

A study published in 1997 by the North Carolina State University's Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE) assessed the costs of environmental compliance for highway projects, including the NEPA process. [2] This study has probably been the most rigorous attempt to quantify the impact of the NEPA process on highway project cost, and specifically states that "all past economic analyses of the costs of environmental regulations have completely overlooked their impacts on the construction and repair of highways. " It does note, however, that state transportation department engineers have suggested in other studies that the additional costs attributed to environmental compliance are at least 8 to 10% of the construction and repair expenditures for Federal Aid projects.

The CTE study involved a survey of environmental officials at 50 state departments of transportation, from which a total of 19 responses were received. The survey questionnaire requested a variety of information regarding expenditures for Federal Aid and state projects involving either new construction or repair, along with the percentages of each that were attributed to environmental compliance activities. It was found that most survey respondents were unable to provide the requested environmental compliance cost information. Of those states that did keep records on staff time and compliance costs, the additional costs were generally found to be less than 10 percent. However, the survey response was considered to be too small to be statistically valid, and of limited use.

The importance of the Section 404 permitting process in terms of affecting the cost of highway projects was demonstrated as part of the CTE study. The study found that several other project circumstances also varied positively with project cost, including the number of National Priority hazardous waste sites, sites on the National Register of Historic Sites, the presence of threatened or endangered species, membership in conservation groups, and acres of farmland. The CTE study concludes that concentrations of environmentally-sensitive resources can impact on time delays and project cost. However, the study was not able to determine the full extent of environmental compliance costs, and the difficulty of isolating the costs of the separate factors and regulations as percentages of the total for uniform application to all projects was noted.

In a separate and recent effort to initiate the development of a baseline condition that can be used in evaluating future environmental streamlining efforts, FHWA has reviewed and compiled time frame data for EIS projects completed with a Record of Decision (ROD) in 1998. Starting points for these projects were linked to the date that the Notice of Intent (NOI) was announced. Of the 37 projects that fell into this category, 13% took 10 or more years to complete NEPA; 19% were completed in 7 - 10 years; 16% were completed in 3 years or less. The majority of the projects (51%) took 4 - 6 years to complete. For the total of 37 projects with RODs signed in 1998, the average amount of time elapsed between the NOI and the ROD was found to be 67 months, or 5-1/2 years, while the median value was found to be 5 years.

Similar to the EIS baseline effort, FHWA also conducted a study to initiate a baseline timeframe for projects involving a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSIs) or a Categorical Exclusion (CE). This database was compiled from information provided by 27 FHWA Division offices. Of these, 18 divisions, or 70% of the respondents, indicated that it generally takes less than 2 years to process a FONSI, while an additional 8 divisions, or 34%, indicated that it generally takes between 2 to 3 years. In the case of CEs, 22 divisions, or 85% of respondents, indicated that it takes less than one year to process a CE, with 18 of them, or 70%, indicating that it takes less than 6 months. Based on the responses received, FHWA has estimated that the typical time frame for completing a FONSI is about 18 months while the typical time frame for completing a CE is 6 months.

Of the three sets of FHWA time frame estimates, only the EIS data are actually based on file searches and specific starting points (i. e. , NOIs). The FONSI and CE data are not based on detailed file searches on the part of the participating FHWA divisions, but rather reflect general experiences and opinions of the respondents. All three data sets reflect only those specific projects reported to be completed in 1998. Regardless of these disclaimers, the time frame estimates developed represent reasonable baseline conditions for use in evaluating future environmental streamlining efforts, at least until more extensive baseline data can be collected and analyzed.

Another recent study undertaken in an effort to identify and assess delays related to the NEPA process was prepared for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), although that study focused exclusively on Categorical Exclusions (CEs) and Environmental Assessments (EAs). [4] In order to collect data on the subject, a total of 40 state departments of transportation (DOTs) were solicited, of which, 33 responded. According to the respondents of the survey, a majority of the DOTs experience some CE and EA process-related delays, even though such levels of environmental documentation are typically associated with projects resulting in less significant environmental impacts than EIS projects. Of those DOTs that responded to the survey, 63% reported some delay with CE preparation and 81% reported some delay on EA projects. In those states responding, it was estimated that 31 to 48% of all CEs are affected by delays, while 43 to 64% of all EAs are affected by delays. Given that CEs and EAs comprise almost 99% of all NEPA projects undertaken by the state DOTs, it was concluded that a significant number of projects can be affected by delay.

It was also concluded from the AASHTO survey that, on average, delays approximately triple environmental review processing time from an average of about 8 months to just under two years for CEs, and from 14 months to about 3. 5 years for EAs. This conclusion was based on information provided by the respondents for a total of 101 CE and EA projects where the actual approval took longer than the timeframe considered to be reasonable. It was further determined that the three environmental compliance requirements that contribute the most to delays in preparation of both CEs and EAs are Section 4f (public parks and recreation areas, and historic resources), Section 106 (historic and archaeological resources) and Section 404 (wetlands) processes, identified as contributing factors to delay by 66%, 61% and 53% of the responding states, respectively.

It should be noted that most of the research studies discussed above are based on data, estimates and opinions provided by survey respondents, and that the key information provided by the respondents was not statistically-developed or validated. In the case of the FHWA's EIS baseline research, the data is based on actual recorded data for all 37 EIS projects completed in 1998, but no information on the many EIS projects completed in all of the other years since implementation of NEPA is included. Also, with the exception of the CTE study, none of the studies actually attempted to assess the impact of NEPA process delay on the overall project development process or its individual components.

Even though the information in all of the previous studies does provide some basis for quantifying the impacts of typical NEPA process delays on schedule and cost of the project development process, the lack of statistical basis for those findings is somewhat limiting. All of the above studies acknowledge the fact that quantifiable data for conducting a more detailed statistical analysis is not readily available, and would require extensive effort in order to collect and analyze such data in a statistical fashion. Despite this limitation, all of these studies represent a starting point for establishing a baseline condition against which to evaluate future environmental streamlining efforts.

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