Colorado: Colorado Department of Transportation: Tools and Techniques to Implement PEL
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is committed to providing a transportation system that is environmentally sensitive and responsible while completing transportation improvements in a timely manner. Colorado, like many other states, has recognized the opportunity to improve transportation decision-making by considering environmental issues early in the transportation planning process and carrying information and decisions into the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.
CDOT has instituted a number of activities to facilitate the integration of planning and environment, including establishing a position dedicated to implementing planning and environmental linkages (PEL), developing decision tools and guidance materials to assist staff in linking planning and environment, and organizing forums to help foster relationships between transportation planners and the resource and regulatory agencies.
In order to improve the connection between long-range planning and NEPA, in 2006, the Colorado DOT created a new position titled the Linking Planning and NEPA Coordinator. This position was created to provide expertise to local and statewide planners, to identify opportunities within standard processes and additional transportation planning activities that can result in more effective decision making in transportation planning and reduce redundant decision-making during the NEPA process.
Through growth of the integration program, this position has evolved into the Planning and Environmental Linkages (PEL) Program Manager. The PEL Program Manager works to improve coordination between planning and environment staff at CDOT and the transportation regions and to facilitate the consideration of environmental issues early in the transportation planning process. The PEL Program Manager's specific responsibilities include:
- Develop effective working relationships with FHWA, CDOT and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) around environmental issues;
- Form the link between transportation planning and project delivery to advance NEPA analysis into the various planning processes;
- Assure that environmental data are available to planning staff and their consultants, and ensure that data are appropriately used and interpreted; and
- Provide expertise, trainings and institutional knowledge of PEL.
The PEL Program Manager plays an integral role in educating staff on how to effectively integrate transportation planning and environmental considerations statewide and at the local planning level.
Decision Tools and Guidance on How to Achieve PEL
One of the initial educational pieces developed following the creation of the PEL Program Manager position was an online, interactive training entitled "Linking Planning and NEPA" (available at http://www.dot.state.co.us/environmental/Training/NEPA_index.asp). The purpose of this training was to provide CDOT and its regional transportation planning partners with guidance to integrate useful NEPA information into statewide and regional transportation planning processes. In addition to offering an overview of statewide and regional transportation planning and NEPA processes, the training provides an "applied" portion, which takes the participant step by step through the contents of a sample corridor or area plan to illustrate how information typically related to a NEPA process can be effectively incorporated into the planning process.
In addition to the online training, CDOT and the FHWA Colorado Division Office are developing two key guidance tools for staff; the web-based Planning and Environmental Linkages Decision Tool and the PEL Questionnaire, to further facilitate implementation of linking planning and environment.
Planning and Environmental Linkages Decision Tool
The Colorado DOT is currently developing the Planning and Environmental Linkages Decision Tool, a web-based, interactive tool to guide decision-making during the planning stages of transportation projects. The decision tool is meant to help users identify appropriate planning studies to conduct given specific transportation problems. The online tool, available to CDOT staff, local governments and planning agencies, guides users through a series of questions about the identified transportation problem. The tool filters responses to questions that cover various factors, including the project location, funding availability, environmental and social issues within the project locations, and the desired outcome from the study. The tool then generates a report that includes recommended tasks to undertake and resource agencies to coordinate with as part of a planning study in order for the study to be consistent with CDOT's PEL process. In addition, the Decision Tool produces a flowchart that outlines the planning process from cradle to grave and highlights where planning and environment weave together.
The Planning and Environmental Linkages Decision Tool is currently undergoing the final stages of testing and is expected to be available to staff in Fall 2008. Once the tool is completed, CDOT will hold a video conference for its regional offices to showcase the guidance tools. The state's MPOs and their member governments will also be involved in the rollout and marketing of the tool in order to encourage local agencies and governments to utilize it. In addition, a class on PEL tools and techniques will be delivered around the state which will include the Planning and Environmental Linkages Decision Tool as well as information on data, different types of studies, and other PEL techniques.
FHWA PEL Questionnaire
While the Planning and Environmental Linkages Decision Tool provides guidance on selecting the appropriate planning study to undertake to address a transportation problem, the PEL Questionnaire (available in pdf) is intended to ease the transition from the planning study to NEPA analysis.
To design the questionnaire, the FHWA Operations Engineer, Transportation Planner and Environmental Manager collaborated to determine what information they would need to see from a study in order to ensure that it was adequate to use for NEPA. The resulting questionnaire serves two complementary purposes:
- Provides guidance to planning staff on the level of detail needed to ensure that information collected and decisions made during the planning study can be used during NEPA; and
- Provides the NEPA project staff with documentation on the outcomes of the planning process, including the history of decisions made and the level of detailed analysis undertaken.
The PEL Questionnaire is provided to the planning project team at the beginning of a planning study. The FHWA Division Office recommends that the completed questionnaire be included in the planning document as an executive summary, chapter, or appendix.
The PEL Questionnaire is currently being used in several local agency planning studies.
Resource Agency Coordination — Environmental Forum
Coordination with resource agencies is another critical element in fostering the consideration of environmental concerns as part of transportation planning. While both transportation and resource agencies are committed to the coordination process, each faces funding and staff limitations that impede their ability to achieve a high degree of coordination. As a result, CDOT sought an avenue that would allow stakeholders to build relationships and increase their understanding of one another without requiring a heavy investment of time or money. The result was an Environmental Forum, a half day event that brought together Colorado's fifteen transportation planning regions (TPR), eleven resource and regulatory agencies, and CDOT's environmental staff.
The Environmental Forum was designed to foster relationships between the planners and the resource and regulatory agencies. To accomplish this, each TPR was organized at a table with a map of their TPR, which depicted general topography, the state highway network, urbanized area boundaries, and all projects in the current fiscally constrained project list. The resource and regulatory agencies and CDOT's environmental staff were set on a rotation scheduling — each individual had 15 minutes for a one-on-one conversation with each TPR. The one-on-one meetings provided resource agencies with the opportunity to identify red flags and share resource issue concerns with each of the regions. Facilitators at each table kept track of the conversations and key issues. Following the Forum, the maps were digitized and sent to the TPRs and resource and regulatory agencies.
The Environmental Forum provided all stakeholders the opportunity to share and learn more about one another. At the conclusion of the event, several of the TPR representatives commented that it was one of the most productive and informative meetings they had attended in several years. CDOT believes the key to the success was including all the relevant stakeholders, including the transportation regions, CDOT Headquarters, FHWA and the resource agencies. By bringing the right people to the table and providing an atmosphere that encouraged meaningful conversations, the Environmental Forum met CDOT's goal of building understanding and relationships between the transportation planners and the resource agencies. Following the success of the Forum and building off lessons learned, the CDOT plans to hold a second Environmental Forum in the future.
The Colorado DOT believes that incorporating environmental concerns early in the planning phase and linking planning to NEPA will enhance and streamline the delivery of transportation projects. While highly encouraged, conducting planning and environmental linkage studies prior to NEPA is voluntary. As such, the state's transportation planners need guidance and training on how to successfully implement the approach. CDOT and FHWA strive to provide clear information about the PEL process, with information on issues to address and agencies to coordinate with, in order to encourage staff to embrace the PEL approach.
For more information, contact:
Planning and Environmental Linkages Program Manager
Colorado Department of Transportation
Phone: (303) 757-9814
For questions or feedback on this subject matter content, please contact Jody McCullough or Marisel Lopez-Cruz.