FHWA's Vital Few Goal — Environmental Stewardship and Streamlining
OVERVIEW OF VITAL FEW GOAL (VFG)
Environmental Stewardship and Streamlining are two different goals that are tightly interlinked. Environmental Streamlining drives us to improve project delivery without compromising environmental protection. Environmental Stewardship helps demonstrate that we are mindful of the natural and human environment while addressing mobility and safety needs of the public. FHWA promotes actions that show we are responsible stewards of the environment. We take advantage of opportunities to enhance environmental protection and encourage partnerships that promote eco-system conservation or encourage broader mitigation strategies that seek corridor or watershed based approaches. Environmental Streamlining is an outcome or result of a multidimensional complex process; therefore, there is no single self-contained measure that adequately reflects Streamlining progress. Environmental Streamlining solutions must go hand in hand with principles of stewardship.
The Vital Few Environmental Streamlining and Stewardship goal (Environment VFG) sets expectations, measures, and methods for advancing an improved and efficient environmental review process and for demonstrating environmental stewardship. The success of this goal is focused on improving processes that influence outcomes. FHWA oversees how the environmental processes are carried out; the project sponsors and other practitioners determine the final product, i.e., the project. Therefore the performance objectives for the Environment VFG measure process improvements and benchmark the results of significant stewardship activities.
ENVIRONMENT VITAL FEW OBJECTIVES
To improve the environmental quality of transportation decisionmaking, all 50 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Federal Lands Highway (FLH) Divisions will use, by September 30, 2007:
- Integrated approaches to multimodal planning, the environmental process and project development at a systems level; and/or
- Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) at a project level.
The purpose of advancing integrated process approaches is to improve the environmental quality of transportation decisionmaking. At the systems level this is accomplished through earlier and better coordination of environmental concerns during the transportation planning process. At the project level, such integration can be enhanced through the application of context sensitive solutions. These strategies integrate environmental and community values into transportation decisions at an early point in planning, and continue through project design. This objective also applies to FLH planning and projects.
The outcomes of meeting this objective will be reflected in higher quality decisions, better environmental documents, greater consensus, and timelier project delivery. To achieve this objective, FHWA is encouraging constructive partnerships with environmental agencies and communities. Each State transportation agency, as coached by FHWA in its role as lead Federal agency under NEPA, will determine the appropriate level of implementation. This objective challenges all State transportation agencies and FLH Divisions to reach beyond their normal processes at the systems planning or project level, and to search for solutions that demonstrate an improved compatibility between the natural and built environment. The results will demonstrate that a strong environmental ethic is compatible with good transportation solutions.
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To improve the timeliness of the both the Federal Aid and FLH environmental process:
- Establish time frames for EAs and EISs and meet the schedules for 90% of those projects by September 30, 2007;
- Decrease the median time it takes to complete an EIS from 54 months to 36 months by September 30, 2007; and
- Decrease the median time to complete an EA from approximately 18 months to 12 months by September 30, 2007.
Improved timeliness will demonstrate our ability to help reduce project delays. This objective fulfills the statutory direction of Section 1309 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) to establish concurrent review timeframes as a cornerstone of Environmental Streamlining. In support of this statutory focus, FHWA felt it important to rigorously pursue the improvement of timeliness by establishing reasonable timeframes for all projects requiring an EIS or EA and by meeting those schedules 90% of the time. State transportation agencies will have to set project schedules with FHWA Divisions. In keeping with Section 1309, States should also negotiate timeframes in consultation with environmental review and permitting agencies. The timeframes set can be either project specific or for classes of projects. The timeframes should be established through agreement and consensus of the agencies. For project specific timeframes, the timeframe should be established, based on the complexity and characteristics of the project, as well as the State's own sense of priority for the project.
By tracking timeframes, we will develop a better understanding of the key impediments to the process, enabling us to address the concerns of Congress, the States, and others. This is a measure where shortcomings may yield useful information. We may find that States are unable to establish timeframes up front, or that tracking times does not improve delivery. Such data may give us more accurate representation of where the problems really do lie. FHWA acknowledges that while Federal review processes contribute to delays other State and local impediments such as funding, politics, and local controversy are also sources of delays.
Based on the historical baseline data, the EIS and EA processing time targets are very ambitious, but achievable if all parties work together. It is important to recognize that the target is a median time that represents a national aggregate of processing times. The median is more representative of typical project timeframes than the mean which can be disproportionately skewed by one or two projects that may take exceedingly long or short time to process. While meeting the 36-month review time for EISs may not be realistic for certain projects or States, there are other projects around the nation that will be able to meet the 36-month target. The data to measure this objective will be collected primarily through the FHWA's new Environmental Document Tracking System (EDTS).
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To increase ecosystem and habitat conservation, implement by September 30, 2007, a minimum of 30 exemplary ecosystem initiatives in at least 20 States or Federal Lands Highway (FLH) Divisions.
FHWA has selected this objective to benchmark responsible environmental measures that can serve as a hallmark of stewardship. This measure focuses specifically on environmental stewardship of the natural environment through the conservation of habitat and ecosystems. It is important to quantitatively document transportation projects specific contributions to ecosystem protection. The environmental process requires multi-disciplinary involvement and input from review and permitting agencies that have jurisdiction over the environmental consequences that result from transportation decisions. These agencies need to be engaged early to define successes and solutions to environmental issues that arise during project planning and development. Many States and review and permitting agencies have increasingly recognized that watershed and ecosystem approaches to enhancement, restoration, and preservation of aquatic and upland ecosystems can expedite the environmental review process while maximizing benefit to the environment.
Ecosystem and habitat conservation was chosen as the preferable form of tangible environmental stewardship for the following reasons:
- It allows highway agencies to mitigate project impacts with flexible, regional approaches, rather than site-specific mitigation plans that are often more costly and less environmentally valuable.
- It is a particularly high and growing priority for environmental agencies, environmental interest groups, and the public.
- It will provide highly visible examples of proactive environmental stewardship by transportation agencies.
- There are opportunities for use of cutting edge science and technology in ecosystem/habitat conservation.
FHWA will identify exemplary ecosystem and habitat projects that are unique or highly unusual in their (a) geographic scope; (b) use of cutting edge science or technology; (c) high level of environmental standards; (d) high quality of results achieved; and/or (e) recognition by environmental interests as being particularly valuable or noteworthy. Exemplary ecosystem and habitat projects can come in many different forms such as development of conservation agreements, establishment or use of wetland banking, special mitigation based on research to assess wildlife movement corridors and habitat connectivity, partnering with local, State, and national conservation organizations to advance common goals, and development of ecological and environmental Geographic Information System baseline databases for use in project development and mitigation.
FHWA has identified Exemplary Ecosystem Initiatives as a baseline for this objective.
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