Environmental Review Toolkit
NEPA and Project Development

Integrating Road Safety into NEPA Analysis:
A Primer for Safety and Environmental Professionals

2.0 NEPA Overview and Levels of Documentation

2.1 NEPA Overview

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires examination of potential impacts to the social and natural environment when considering proposed transportation projects involving Federal funds or approval action. Supporting the Act, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) adopted the policy of managing the NEPA project development and decision-making process as an “umbrella,” under which all applicable environmental laws, executive orders, and regulations are considered and addressed prior to the final project decision and document approval. This umbrella includes laws relating to historic preservation, endangered species, wetlands, and others.

FHWA’s Role in the NEPA Process

As lead Federal agency in the NEPA process, the FHWA is responsible for scoping projects, involving relevant agencies, developing consensus among a wide range of stakeholders with diverse interests, resolving conflict, and ensuring that quality transportation decisions are fully explained in the environmental document.

Source: FHWA Environmental Toolkit.

Safety considerations can arise in many stages of the NEPA process. Safety concerns may be part of the impetus for the transportation project (the project purpose and need). Safety issues may arise during public outreach as a community concern; or may be a concern held by agency stakeholders, such as engineers, local government officials, public health professionals, law enforcement, emergency medical services professionals, and others. Project alternatives may include safety-related improvements or mitigation strategies to address negative safety-related consequences.

Although safety can be a central focus for some NEPA documents, it is more frequently one of several factors considered during the project development decision-making process. Other project goals may include enhanced mobility, environmental protection, historic preservation, community livability, and other factors deemed important by the project’s stakeholders. Practitioners must balance competing objectives to best meet the needs of the community as appropriate for the context. The context sensitive solutions (CSS) approach discussed in Section 5.3 can help practitioners address the need to balance competing priorities.

2.2 Classes of Action

The first major step in conducting NEPA analysis is to determine the potential environmental resource impacts resulting from a proposed action. This review determines the type of the class of action that prescribes the appropriate level of documentation. The three classes of action are: Categorical Exclusions (CE), Environmental Assessments (EA), and Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). This primer focuses primarily on integrating safety into the steps involved in preparing EAs and EISs. However, practitioners also can incorporate safety into Categorical Exclusions; in fact, consideration of safety in CEs is critical to integrating safety and the NEPA process given that the vast majority of NEPA documentation is completed as CEs. Figure 2.1 illustrates the process of deciding on and carrying out the appropriate level of documentation.

Figure 2.1 NEPA Decision-Making Process – Levels of Documentation

This Figure shows the major steps in the NEPA decision making process (long description available)   L

Categorical Exclusions

Categorical Exclusions are appropriate for projects that individually or cumulatively do not have significant environmental impacts. They are the most frequently used NEPA documentation. Many small-scale safety projects are likely to qualify as a CE, as indicated in the text box on page 6.

Although CEs by definition do not require extensive analysis and do not have significant impacts, safety-related considerations may still arise. Appropriate questions to ask include:

  • Will the project have any implications for safety?
  • Were existing safety conditions examined?
  • Even if no potential safety impacts are identified, is it still possible to improve safety, taking each type of user (e.g., vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists) into consideration?
  • Does the project design incorporate best practices for safety?

Even if the project qualifies as a CE, safety can still be improved in most cases. The following examples show how to consider safety in projects likely to qualify as categorical exclusions:

  • Roadway resurfacing and rehabilitation projects. Roadway resurfacing presents an opportunity to make the roadway safer (i.e., elimination of hazardous edge drop-offs or installation high-visibility pavement markings). Refer to the FHWA guidebook on incorporating safety into roadway resurfacing projects (FHWA, 2006, Good Practices: Incorporating Safety into Resurfacing and Restoration Projects, http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/roadway_dept/strat_approach/fhwasa07001/fhwasa07001.pdf).
  • Landscaping projects. Practitioners can consider road safety in landscaping projects by ensuring, at a minimum, landscaping does not obscure sight distances (the ability of road users to see one another and fixed objects along the roadway) and enhances safety where possible. Landscaped medians, for example, can help slow vehicles as they enter commercial areas (FHWA, 2009, Engineering Countermeasures for Reducing Speeds: A Desktop Reference of Potential Effectiveness, http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/speedmgt/ref_mats/eng_count/), thereby, reducing the risk of a crash with pedestrians, bicyclists, or other vehicles.
  • Downtown revitalization projects. Downtown revitalization projects provide an opportunity to incorporate proven safety countermeasures, such as exclusive pedestrian signal phasing at areas with high concentrations of pedestrians, median islands, or traffic calming to slow vehicles.

Design stage Road Safety Audits (RSA) are a useful tool for identifying opportunities to enhance the safety of any project regardless of the level of NEPA documentation (see the discussion of RSAs in Section 5.0 of this document).

Example Projects Likely to Qualify as Categorical Exclusions

  • Activities which do not involve or lead directly to construction (e.g., planning and research activities).
  • Construction of bicycle and pedestrian lanes, paths, and facilities.
  • Activities included in the state’s highway safety plan under 23 U.S.C. 402.
  • Landscaping.
  • Installation of fencing, signs, pavement markings, small passenger shelters, traffic signals, and railroad warning devices where no substantial land acquisition or traffic disruption will occur.
  • Improvements to existing rest areas and truck weigh stations.
  • Promulgation of rules, regulations, and directives.
  • Deployment of electronics, photonics, communications, or information processing (e.g., traffic control and detector devices, lane management systems, dynamic message signs).
  • Modernization of a highway by resurfacing, restoration, rehabilitation, reconstruction, adding shoulders, or adding auxiliary lanes (e.g., parking, weaving, turning, climbing).
  • Highway safety or traffic operations improvement projects, including the installation of ramp-metering control devices and lighting.
  • Bridge rehabilitation, reconstruction, or replacement; or the construction of grade separation to replace existing at-grade railroad crossings.
  • Approvals for changes in access control.

A complete list of projects likely to qualify as CEs can be found under 23 CFR, § 771.117 Categorical Exclusions.

Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements

Environmental Assessments (EA) are appropriate when the significance of an environmental impact is unknown. EAs result in either a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), or the determination that the preparation of an EIS is required.

EISs are the appropriate level of documentation for projects with significant environmental impacts. These projects make up a small percentage of NEPA documents prepared, but contain the highest level of detailed analysis.

Figure 2.2 illustrates the major stages of an EIS, (including scoping, development of the purpose-and-need statement, alternatives analysis, defining the affected environment, analysis of environmental consequences, and mitigation); and summarizes how safety considerations can be incorporated into each part (for example, by soliciting input from safety professionals during project scoping).

EAs have the same components, but require far less detail than EISs, and do not require a formal project scoping process. The inputs for safety, however, remain the same. Safety considerations, which are shown to the right of Figure 2.2 in the blue boxes, are best addressed in early steps (scoping and development of purpose-and-need statement) through initial input from safety stakeholders and transparent discussion of safety issues, including linking back to the safety planning process. Inclusion of safety in the alternatives analysis is based on evaluating safety performance as part of a comprehensive assessment of potential project alternatives. During the impact assessment portion of the environmental process (Affected Environment, Environmental Consequences), it is important to describe the environment from a safety context, and to assess the potential safety impacts of project development. Finally, mitigation should also include mitigation of any potential safety impacts.

The coordination and consultation, or public involvement, portion of the NEPA process is represented by the blue box to the left of Figure 2.2. Safety stakeholders, including public officials and private citizens, represent an important constituent group to include in both EISs and EAs. Their comments should be solicited at key NEPA milestones, as should comments from a broad public. In addition, the public should be provided with safety analyses and data for review and comment.

Figure 2.2 Integrating Safety into NEPA Analysis

This figure illustrates the major stages involved in preparing an Environmental Impact Statement, including project scoping, development of the purpose-and-need statement, alternatives analysis, defining the affected environment, analysis of environmental consequences, and mitigation and summarizes how safety considerations can be incorporated into each stage

The following sections provide further detail on integrating safety into the NEPA process, beginning with establishing a connection with safety before the formal NEPA process even begins, and then throughout the steps in the NEPA decision-making process. Although the sections are organized around the steps involved in preparing EAs and EISs, much of the information speaks to how to improve the safety of all types of transportation projects through rigorous safety analysis and use of proven countermeasures, and is therefore relevant to CEs as well.

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