The NEPA/Section 404 Permit Merger
The NEPA/404 merger is designed to improve the efficiency of the FHWA NEPA process by using early and active interagency coordination to focus efforts on reaching an environmentally sound project. For projects involving fill in waters of the United States, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is responsible for issuing permits and assessing whether the project is appropriate. USACE follows the requirements of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. In addition to USACE, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may also be involved in Section 404 permitting.
The NEPA/404 merger process was initiated to streamline project decisionmaking on Federal-aid highway projects. Merging the FHWA NEPA and Section 404 permit processes expedites project decisionmaking and leads to one overall public interest decision, at one point in time, for a Federal-aid project. Both the NEPA and Section 404 processes involve the evaluation of alternatives, the assessment of impacts to resources, and the balancing of resource impacts and project need. All involved agencies recognize the need to avoid duplication and process inefficiencies.
In 1985, the FHWA, USACE, EPA, FWS, and NMFS jointly convened a workgroup to develop guidance entitled "Applying the Section 404 Permit Process to Federal-aid Highway Projects." Better known as the "Red Book," this document provides numerous measures to improve interagency coordination on Federal-aid highway projects, emphasizes innovative and cost-effective approaches, and integrates the NEPA and Section 404 permit processes.
The US Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) hosted Executive Workshops for key regional field office personnel of FHWA, EPA, and USACE in November 1990 to discuss wetlands and transportation issues. Participants discussed six basic issues:
- Project purpose and need.
- Practicable alternative analysis.
- Assessment of functional values.
- Wetlands delineation.
- Integration of NEPA and Section 404 permit processes.
On May 1, 1992, the U.S. DOT, EPA, and the Department of the Army issued a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) entitled "Implementation of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA)." This MOA made the Red Book official policy for U.S. DOT, EPA, and USACE and established initiatives to improve the regulation and reduce inefficiencies under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act without diminishing protection of the nation's valuable aquatic resources. FHWA is committed to expanding the Red Book to include other aspects of interagency coordination, further streamlining the NEPA process.
Work in Pennsylvania is a good example of using the Red Book principles successfully to achieve a streamlined decisionmaking process. In 1992, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) found that implementing some Red Book management techniques on three highway projects saved $119 million (10-13% of total construction costs) and reduced the amount of time for NEPA/404 approval for each project by nearly 70%. PennDOT used interagency management teams and an aggressive schedule for project completion in order to focus efforts on reaching an environmentally sound project.
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