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Environmental Review Toolkit

Collaborative Problem Solving: Better and Streamlined Outcomes for All

Guidance on Managing Conflict and Resolving Disputes between State and Federal Agencies During the Transportation Project Development and Environmental Review Process

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2.1 Applicability

This guidance is designed to assist Federal and state agencies (such as departments or offices of transportation, environmental protection, fish and game, and historic preservation) as they interact at the transportation planning stage and during the review of individual transportation projects. Federal and state land management agencies may also be involved where the transportation project affects public lands. Most of the concepts presented in this guidance also have applicability to effective collaboration with local governments and tribes.

Many disputes arising in the transportation development process involve nongovernmental groups and the public at large. Public involvement and input is an integral component of the transportation planning project development process. These requirements are delineated in FHWA's statewide and metropolitan planning regulations (23 CFR 450) and FHWA's NEPA regulations (23 CFR 771). Problems that are identified by the public, related project controversies and the manner in which they are resolved can be found in those references. However, this document focuses exclusively on managing interagency relationships and conflicts . Keep in mind that these Federal agency reviews and public involvement occurs simultaneously and public input is continually integrated into the planning and environmental review processes.

2.2 Purpose

Given the complexity of decision-making and the diversity of competing needs to be addressed, conflict is usually a part of the transportation development business. Various agencies operate under different missions and mandates, each of which must be accommodated. Advanced planning, coordinated scheduling, sufficient time for reviews and adequate resources will help reduce the numbers and intensity of disputes that occur both at the planning stage and at the project review level. This guidance focuses on helping agencies identify when and how they are stuck, and most importantly, what to do next. Moving beyond an impasse is essential to getting back on schedule. Understanding how to avoid getting stuck again will help smooth the project review process in the long run.

2.3 Guidance, Not Prescription

In the following chapters, common aspects of conflicts that occur in the transportation planning and project review processes and suggestions for how to proceed are discussed. Examples of successful approaches to dispute resolution implemented in selected states are also presented. Flexibility and adaptation as well as early coordination and communication among involved parties are emphasized in order to accommodate local conditions, operating relationships, existing agreements, and political considerations.

2.4 Guiding Principles

Some guiding principles to consider:

  • Engage all relevant agency representatives early, actively, and continually in collaborative problem solving during transportation planning and project review processes.
  • Improve negotiation and problem solving skills of agency staff through training and coaching.
  • Attempt to resolve disagreements at the earliest stage possible and at the lowest appropriate organizational level.
  • Seek resolution first by focusing on how to meet agency interests and needs in the context of existing laws and regulations.
  • Take advantage of experienced facilitators and mediators to assist agencies in designing conflict management processes and in resolving challenging disputes.
  • Make effective use of higher-level authorities as appropriate for negotiating impasses or resolving higher-level issues.
  • Educate each other as to legal authorities of each agency and structure collaborative processes to be respectful of those authorities.

Knowing when to elevate and recognizing that it is far more expedient to get issues addressed as soon as possible by those who are in the best position to solve them is not an indicator of failure. Instead, it is a hallmark of effective communication and good decision-making.

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