Environmental Review Toolkit
Accelerating Project Delivery

Evaluating the Performance of Environmental Streamlining:
Development of a NEPA baseline for Measuring Continuous Performance


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1. 1 Background

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) marked the beginning of the environmental review process for all federal actions, including the use of federal funds for construction of highway and bridge projects falling under the purview of the U. S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (USDOT / FHWA). Under NEPA, applicable projects are assessed in relation to the environmental conditions of the area, and the impact that various project alternatives would have upon those environmental conditions. It has always been the intent of the NEPA process to ensure that informed decisionmaking with respect to the environment occurs when considering the need for, and proposed alignment and design of transportation projects.

Despite the overall benefit of NEPA in addressing the wide array of public interests that can be impacted in some manner by transportation decisions, the process has long been criticized due to the perception that it is a major source of delay and inflationary cost increases by the time that projects are actually constructed and open to traffic. This perception is especially true when an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is the most comprehensive and time-consuming environmental document required under NEPA, is involved.

The perception that NEPA results in extensive delays and additional costs to the successful delivery of transportation projects is further magnified when environmental processes pursuant to other laws and regulations are also required and addressed under the overall NEPA umbrella. For instance, regulations such as Section 4(f), Section 106, and Section 7 which have their own special requirements but are generally performed concurrently with NEPA, can complicate a project's progress if the applicable resources (i.e. , public parks and recreation areas, significant historic and archaeological sites, and threatened and endangered species, respectively) are present and potentially impacted. In addition, Section 404 permits regarding wetland impacts may be initiated during the NEPA process, but they are generally not completed until after NEPA has been completed due to the greater level of design detail needed to complete the permit applications in comparison to that required for preparing a NEPA document. Reviews by agencies such as the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U. S. Coast Guard, and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as various state regulatory and review agencies, add further to the perception that extensive delays and additional costs occur, even though such reviews are more often affiliated with permitting processes than NEPA. Of course, the amount of public and political opposition to a project can also have a significant impact on schedule and cost.

The reality is that over the 30 years since NEPA was implemented, transportation planners and engineers have questioned the effect that the NEPA process has had on the timely delivery and overall cost of transportation projects. Although it is a commonly accepted fact that the NEPA process, especially the preparation and approval of EISs, can often take several years to complete, the time required and the relative costs incurred to complete the entire highway project delivery process has not been well documented or understood. At best, studies of the environmental process have looked at that process directly, but generally not relative to the construction or other phases of the project. Most of the information available concerning the time required to complete a project has come from anecdotal sources, generally focused on single projects. In this regard, it is not evident what portion of the schedule and cost of the entire project delivery process is attributed to NEPA compliance requirements, in comparison to other potential sources of process delay such as funding shortages, compliance with environmental permitting requirements, changes in design, contractor delays, lawsuits and injunctions, etc. Until the impact of NEPA on the transportation project delivery process can be better quantified, it is likely that the popular perception that NEPA comprises a major source of delay and inflationary cost affecting the ability to deliver transportation projects on schedule and within budget will continue to exist.

1. 2 Relationship of NEPA Process to Total Project Delivery Process

Before the impact of the NEPA process on overall timing and cost of project delivery can be assessed, it is important to understand how NEPA integrates into the overall project delivery process. For purposes of this study, the project delivery process begins at the time that a project is advanced from a planning phase to an actual committed project, which may or may not begin with the inclusion of the project on a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) or a State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). Given the fact that NEPA has been in existence for 30 years and the transition between planning and project development has been somewhat variable during that period, it can generally be assumed that project development begins when federal funds are first allocated at a project level, which usually begins with preliminary engineering.

The elements that are generally considered to be included as part of the full project delivery process are: preliminary engineering, final or construction engineering, right-of-way acquisition, and construction. These four major elements have historically been used and recorded as part of FHWA's Fiscal Management Information System (FMIS) which is a financial database of all highway projects dating back to the 1940s that have been financed using federal funds. Other elements of the overall process such as scoping and NEPA environmental documentation also exist, although they would likely be integrated into one of the four basic elements such as preliminary engineering. Environmental permitting is another element of the overall process, although that element would also likely be incorporated into one of the four basic elements such as preliminary engineering or, more likely, final engineering.

Due to the fact that NEPA compliance fits into the overall project delivery process as a subset of one or more of the four major elements of the process, the time that it takes to fulfill all of the requirements of NEPA naturally could have a direct impact on the timing of the overall process. Any delays in receipt of a Record of Decision (ROD), which is the final official step of the NEPA EIS process, could also impact upon the cost of the project delivery if the delays are extensive enough for inflationary cost increases to result. Any inflationary cost impacts would be in addition to the direct cost of complying with NEPA in terms of the actual preparation of the necessary alternatives analyses and environmental studies. However, as stated in Section 1. 1 above, the direct effect of NEPA compliance on the ultimate schedule and cost of delivering a completed transportation project is unclear at this time, given that other factors can also contribute to the schedule and cost.

1. 3 Purpose of Research Study

The purpose of this research study, from the outset, has been to provide a better understanding of the impacts of the NEPA process on the total time and cost involved in delivering a federal-aid highway or bridge project to construction completion. Due to the common perception that NEPA compliance is a major source of delay and inflationary cost increases on such projects, this research was designed in an effort to identify the true schedule and cost implications of NEPA upon the total project delivery process. It has also been the intent of this study to identify the individual factors influencing the amount of time required for the NEPA process for individual projects in order to develop performance measures.

The impetus for this research is directly related to Section 1309 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which directs the Department of Transportation to develop a coordinated environmental review process under the heading of environmental streamlining. Given widespread concerns about delays, duplication of effort, and additional costs associated with NEPA and other environmental review processes, the law specifically states that:

"The Secretary shall develop and implement a coordinated environmental review process for highway construction projects that require. . . the preparation of an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U. S. C. 4321 et seq. ), except that the Secretary may decide not to apply this section to the preparation of an environmental assessment under such Act. . . . "

In response to the overall intent and requirements of the Section 1309 regarding environmental streamlining, a National Memorandum of Understanding between seven key federal agencies was agreed upon and signed in July 1999. One of the specific goals agreed to among the agencies was to "establish, with stakeholder input, goals, performance measures, and benchmarks to evaluate transportation and environmental decision making" as part of the effort to reduce project delays.

In order to begin to develop goals, performance measures and benchmarks for evaluating future efforts to implement environmental streamlining techniques, it is first necessary to establish a baseline against which to assess those future efforts. Since NEPA is at the center of the several environmental processes that are generally required to be addressed when constructing or otherwise improving federal-aid highways, NEPA was identified as the process to focus upon for establishing such a baseline. Although EISs represent only a small component of total NEPA-compliance studies undertaken by FHWA in recent years, a trend that is expected to continue in future years as well, projects requiring an EIS tend to have the greatest potential to experience future improvement pursuant to environmental streamlining. Therefore, the focus of this research to establish a baseline against which to assess future environmental streamlining efforts has been directed toward EIS projects. EIS projects have also been targeted for this research due to their increased data availability in comparison to lower-level NEPA projects such as those requiring environmental assessments (EAs) or categorical exclusions (CEs). To the extent that data was found to be available for these lesser environmental projects, it was also the intent to include them in the research as much as possible.

As part of the development of the baseline condition, it has been the specific intent of this research to identify what component of the time and cost of the overall project delivery process is attributed to NEPA. In this manner, an indication of the historical time and cost relationship of NEPA to the overall project delivery process could be established so that any future streamlining improvements upon those relationships could be determined. It has been the intent from the outset to establish this baseline relationship from a random sample of projects using a statistical approach.

Another basic goal of this research has been to identify and assess a wide variety of factors and conditions that may have a direct or indirect impact upon the NEPA process and the project delivery process as a whole, and to determine the predictive strength of the relationship between NEPA and those factors. For instance, if it can be determined that such factors as location of a project, type of project, or types of impacts have a statistical relationship to the amount of time and cost required for complying with NEPA, which in turn impacts upon the entire project delivery process, then a predictive tool can be developed in planning future projects. In this manner, reasonable time frames and costs associated with the NEPA process under a variety of conditions could be identified and used in assessing the likely time and cost to be expected for future projects under similar conditions. Essentially, the baseline condition, against which all future streamlining efforts would be assessed, must reflect the specific factors that influence an average time and cost for complying with NEPA, thereby creating separate baseline conditions for projects exhibiting like characteristics. Once the separate baselines can be established, then any variations in time or cost associated with future projects exhibiting similar conditions could then be measured and assessed. The ability to monitor variations in time or cost against the baseline condition would, in turn, lead to the ability to assess future progress in meeting the goals of the environmental streamlining initiative.

A final purpose of this research has been to identify appropriate data sources and formats that could be utilized for developing the baseline conditions, as well as for monitoring future progress of environmental streamlining. Any potential improvements to the existing data or to the collection of future data that would be appropriate or necessary for carrying forward with this research should also be identified in this regard.

Therefore, the basic purpose of this research can be summarized with the following three objectives:

  • To develop a methodology that establishes a historical and statistically-generated baseline of the length of time required to comply with the NEPA process;
  • To develop a methodology for statistically assessing the impact of the NEPA process on project delivery time and cost under a variety of conditions, and which can be expanded and refined over time in order to monitor future progress in meeting the goals of the environmental streamlining initiative of TEA-21; and
  • To identify future data needs and improvements for continuing this research in the future.

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