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Environmental Review Toolkit

Questions and Answers about Using the National PEL Questionnaire

The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) Planning and Environmental Linkages (PEL) Questionnaire is an adaptation of a questionnaire jointly developed by the Colorado Department of Transportation and FHWA Colorado Division Office in order to ensure that planning information and decisions are properly documented to be utilized in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Three documents have been developed to go along with the PEL Questionnaire, two sets of questions and answers and the Criteria for Determining PEL Questionnaire Equivalents. The first Q and A addresses implementing the EDC-PEL initiative and this questionnaire concerns the use of the questionnaire itself.

Q. What is a PEL study?

A. PEL studies are any long range systems or project planning studies, done of alternatives for a State or MPO long range plan, corridor level or subarea planning. These studies could include the feasibility of projects, tiered environmental studies, refinement of a project’s scope or design, the development of compatible land use, demand management or management and operational strategies that can make a project serve the project’s need longer or have less impact.

Q. What other projects or strategies should be considered with the corridor strategies?

A. Congestion related studies, operation and maintenance projects, demand management projects, land use strategies related to reducing travel impacts especially if they are related to a corridor being considered for a capacity related project should be included in PEL studies. Analysis from scenario planning efforts should be considered during the development of the purpose and need statements if resource agencies have been involved. The results from air quality conformity analyses, transportation control measures within State Air Quality Implementation Plans would also be information that can impact the purpose and need and the alternatives to be evaluated within NEPA.

The following Q&As relate to each question in the PEL questionnaire.

Questionnaire Section 1: Background

Q. Why is the information requested in the background section so detailed?

A. The background information serves as a brief summary of facts or a consolidation of ‘who, what, when and where.’ In cases where months or even years may have passed during or between the planning study and the beginning of the NEPA analysis, this detailed information will allow NEPA practitioners to understand who was involved and where to locate the original documentation. Also, in the event that an elected official, an agency representative or a member of the public makes an inquiry, core information is readily accessible.

The name, identifying features, and chronology allow for ease in progress tracking, inquiry response follow-up and cross referencing studies and projects. The description should clearly represent the existing conditions within the existing or proposed corridor. This ensures that future decision makers are aware of the nature and magnitude of potential natural, cultural or social impacts that might occur.

This would also be useful to anticipate the nature and extent of future environmental studies. Identifying the sponsor and study team members provide details to ensure or allow for consistency in future phases. The recent, current, or near future studies (i.e. air quality, ITS, demand management, or economic studies) support information sharing between proposed or anticipated components or phases of the study and anticipated studies or actions by others.

Questionnaire Section 2: Methodology used

Q. Why do the methods need to be characterized? Does it really matter whether the language or term was ‘NEPA-like’ or who made a decision?

A. The specific requirements of the regulations for Environment (23 CFR 771) and Planning (23 CFR 420) must be met and documented. There are various terms of art (language) used in the planning and environmental professions that bear weight or have legal standing. For example, the terms ‘purpose and need’ have very different meanings for each practitioner. Ensure that the study is reviewed by staff with knowledge of the terms (language) that may be problematic. Identifying the words and ensuring that they are used appropriately and will not contradict or be misinterpreted in any future environmental study is critical to a supportable conclusion.

Documenting the key steps and coordination points along with the responsible and participatory parties, provide a documented perspective of the planning decision process and justify the progression of the transportation planning needs into the development (NEPA) phase.

Q. How should the planning study be incorporated in the NEPA phase?

A. Recognizing the methodology used to conduct the PEL study as well as who the various participatory parties were in the process will vary — the results of the PEL will be incorporated into the NEPA document consistent with how it meets NEPA requirements. If a PEL study was more inclusive of alternatives and involved a wider range of team members (public, resource agencies, special interest groups) then it will have more value and be more broadly incorporated in the NEPA process. On one hand, a PEL study may be incorporated by reference or as an Appendix of a NEPA document; on the other, various components of a PEL study will be documented or summarized within the various sections of a NEPA document.

Questionnaire Section 3: Agency Coordination

Q. Why do we document agency coordination?

A. This information ensures and documents which agencies or entities participated in the PEL study and decision making process. The participation of those entities gives greater validity to the results and decisions that can more readily be incorporated into future NEPA studies, which includes necessary coordination and ultimately decisions.

Questionnaire Section 4: Public coordination

Q. Why do we document public coordination?

A. This information ensures and documents what opportunities for public and stakeholder participation or involvement were made available. Good efforts to identify and solicit public input during PEL may allow NEPA studies to start with previously identified public and interest groups and a knowledgeable public. Supplementing a typical planning public involvement program will enhance those efforts necessary under NEPA thereby allowing NEPA studies to ‘hit the ground running.’

Questionnaire Section 5: Purpose and need of the planning study.

Q. Why are we documenting the purpose and need of a planning study?

A. The purpose and need (P&N) of a PEL and a NEPA study are important. Understanding the P&N of a planning study and being able to effectively incorporate those visions, goals, or objectives into the NEPA study will let the projects that evolve from the planning study to progress faster. If the planning P&N are developed in a consistent manner with that required in the environmental process, there is less need to revisit P&N, and in some cases a P&N may be accepted in the NEPA document ‘as is.’ Document the evolution of the planning P&N either by reference or text in the NEPA document.

Questionnaire Section 6: Range of alternatives — Planning teams need

Q. Why are we documenting the details of and how we arrived at a range of planning alternatives?

A. Responses to questions a-f will document the key issues considered as the PEL study seeks to address the transportation needs on a regional level. Planning alternatives focus on general mode(s) and general travel corridors. Screening of planning alternatives will note and justify the elimination of unreasonable (fatal flaw) alternatives. The development of planning alternatives should allow for and solicit input from various partners or parties such as regulatory or resource agencies, the public, and special interest groups. The decision on the range of planning alternatives that will be recommended to progress into NEPA documents must meet the planning requirements and must have been developed consistent with the environmental requirements in order to be accepted/adopted in the NEPA. When sufficiently documented, planning alternatives can be incorporated and used to support NEPA/project level alternative development without or with minimal revisits.

Questionnaire Section 7: Planning assumptions and analytical methods

Q. Why should we document the planning assumptions and analytical methods?

A. The points of contention in many planning and NEPA studies, raised by special interest groups or project opposition, have been focused on the planning assumptions and analytical methods used. Therefore, the documentation of the currency and the adequacy of the analytical tools are important as the basis or foundation of the PEL results and, ultimately, the NEPA decisions.

Questionnaire Section 8: Environmental resources (wetlands, cultural, etc.) reviewed. For each resource or group of resources reviewed, provide the following:

Q. Why is it important to document the level of environmental studies undertaken in planning? Isn’t that NEPA?

A. The documentation of environmental considerations that were considered in the planning study may support the exclusion or inclusion of alternatives for further consideration. The level of environmental consideration within the planning process has varied greatly from place to place. Therefore, it is important to document the methods of that review and who was involved with it. If the specific information was collected in a manner consistent with the accepted methodologies for collecting similar data in the NEPA process, the information may be accepted as preliminary data. This will support and speed up the NEPA project development process.

Analysis conducted during the planning process is not under the same scrutiny or legal requirements as NEPA. However, planning information must be robust and well documented to be accepted in NEPA.

Questionnaire Section 9: List environmental resources that you are aware of that were not reviewed in the PEL study and why. Indicate whether or not they will need to be reviewed in NEPA and explain why.

Q. Why wouldn’t everything be evaluated?

A. There may be many reasons that not all environmental resources were either identified or preliminarily evaluated during a PEL study. There are some resources that are too sensitive (i.e. endangered species locations) or too invasive (i.e. archaeology shovel test pits) to identify or evaluate during planning but important to interagency coordination and the NEPA evaluation to know about. A simple explanation and clear expectation of the need for future studies during the NEPA process will avoid or minimize surprises and delays in the future.

Questionnaire Section 10: Were cumulative impacts considered in the PEL study? If yes, provide the information or reference where it can be found.

Q. Why are we concerned about cumulative and secondary impacts?

A. Many planning studies do not evaluate cumulative impacts. However, when scenario planning efforts are undertaken by a PEL, the data can be very important to the NEPA study.

Questionnaire Section 11: Describe any mitigation strategies discussed at the planning level that should be analyzed during NEPA.

Q. Why should we discussion mitigation in planning?

A. Traditionally, most mitigation has been based at the project level; however, the transportation planning regulations (23 CFR 450) extend the mitigation requirement into planning. Agencies can consider mitigation activities on a broader scale than individual projects may allow. This offers agencies the opportunity to identify activities that have the greatest potential to protect, restore, and enhance the environmental factors affected by the plan.

Questionnaire Section 12: What needs to be done during NEPA to make information from the PEL study available to the agencies and the public? Are there PEL study products which can be used or provided to agencies or the public during the NEPA scoping process?

Q. How will a planner find out this information?

A. Coordinate with NEPA counterparts in your State DOT and FHWA Division Office to answer these questions and to engage them early in information sharing.

Questionnaire Section 13: Are there any other issues a future project team should be aware of?

A. This question acknowledges time lags and personnel changes that often occur between a PEL study and a NEPA process. It allows the corporate knowledge of additional information collected during the PEL to be passed forward.