|Environmental Review Toolkit|
|NEPA and Project
|Section 4(f)||Water, Wetlands,
|Accelerating Project Delivery|
In general, the undeveloped lands immediately adjacent to the I-29 corridor in Fargo were agricultural, although the land is planned for other uses as the city continues to grow. In contrast, lands within a couple miles of the corridor, but not immediately adjacent, are characterized by commercial development, single- and multi-family housing, and an amusement park.
The major intents of this project included: replacement of deficient pavements; improvement of the roadway capacity and level of service; improvement of access to and from the interstate; and improvement of roadway access / continuity across the interstate. By the late 1990s, the I-29 project area was more than 32 years old; the pavement had exceeded its design life and warranted replacement. Pavement condition and maintenance data from NDDOT indicated the pavement to be in fair to poor condition. The distresses present indicated longitudinal joint cracking, longitudinal cracks, transverse cracks, and transverse crack spalling, all of which were indicators that the pavement was failing structurally. Further indications were that the pavement would continue to deteriorate at an accelerated pace, thereby requiring extensive maintenance on a continual basis.
It was also identified that, due to changes in design standards and guidelines, upgrading geometric features that did not meet current standards were required. These included: curve superelevations; width of ramp acceleration lanes; pavement cross slopes; bridge vertical clearances; bridge widths; and bridge rails.
Additionally, based on NDDOT's traffic modeling efforts, capacity of the existing roadway would not be able to adequately handle future volumes given the amount of growth expected in upcoming years. The modeling results indicated that congestion would increase and access would diminish if no capacity improvements were made, thereby demonstrating the need to increase roadway capacity as well as access within the study area.
For all of the above reasons, the reconstruction of I-29 included: replacement of the existing pavement and possible widening of the existing four-lane facility to six lanes and the addition of auxiliary lanes. Several interchange ramps were also proposed to be reconstructed and modified, as were various ramps and interchange crossroads. The project also included facilities necessary to accommodate bicyclist and pedestrian needs in the corridor.
How Project Development Advanced Through NEPA
Preparation and approval of an EIS pursuant to NEPA for the Interstate 29 Reconstruction from Rose Coulee to Cass County Road No. 20 took a total of 33 months from Notice of Intent (NOI) to Record of Decision (ROD). An earlier study had, however, already indicated the need for the project, thereby setting the stage for the environmental review process.
Westside Access Study
As mentioned previously, NDDOT and the City of Fargo recognized that deteriorating pavement conditions and traffic congestion along I-29 needed to be addressed. These two entities began studying possible solutions to the issues in the early 1990s. This early effort then led to preparation of a major traffic study known as the Westside Access Study, which began in 1993.
This study was a cooperative effort between NDDOT, FHWA, the City of Fargo, and the Fargo-Moorhead Council of Governments (FMCOG). Although this study covered a smaller portion of I-29 than was later included in the EIS, it did allow transportation officials to evaluate various improvement strategies within the study area, including the I-29 corridor. This study resulted in several transportation improvement recommendations which included capacity improvements to I-29 and improved east-west access across I-29 via new grade separations. The Fargo City Commission approved its preferred set of improvements from the Westside Access Study in July 1996. The FMCOG also included relevant improvements on its Metropolitan Transportation Plan.
NEPA EIS Process
In September 1996, a letter soliciting views and comments about the recommended I-29 improvements from the Westside Access Study were sent to the various federal, state, and local agencies. This letter was sent well in advance of the official start of the NEPA process in June 1997 when the Notice of Intent was filed. Another letter for the solicitation of views was sent prior to the Draft EIS. Shortly after mailing, feedback from these agencies was received and taken into account.
Key Factors of the NEPA Process
The public involvement process for this project followed standard protocol. Four public meetings were held in order to gain comments on the project. The first meeting was in February 1997, followed by others in June 1998, October 1998, August 1999. The final meeting in August 1999 served as the formal Public Hearing required by NEPA. Participants at the various meetings were invited to provide their comments through one of three forms: recorded oral testimony; oral statements to staff; and written statements on cards provided at the meetings. Some of the public input led to changes in general project characteristics and landscaping improvements. Comments from these meetings were used to construct the Draft EIS, which was approved and distributed in July 1999, a total of 25 months after the official NEPA start date. Approval of the Final EIS came in February 2000, followed by the Record of Decision one month later in March 2000.
The Preferred Alternative to reconstruct I-29 as presented in the Final EIS consisted of widening some areas from four lanes to six lanes, and adding auxiliary lanes where appropriate. It also included improvements and/or reconstruction of bridge structures and interchange ramps, as well as new grade separations. Together, these strategies fully addressed the deterioration and congestion issues motivating the project, while minimizing environmental impacts. Therefore, this alternative was selected as the Preferred Alternative. Specific elements of the Preferred Alternative included the following:
Other Alternatives Considered
Aside from the Preferred Alternative, four other major alternatives were considered. They included a No-Build Alternative, a Transportation Systems Management (TSM) Alternative, a Mass Transit Alternative, and a Reconstruct / Recycle Four-Lane Alternative. In addition to these major alternatives, a number of specific design options were considered and rejected at individual interchanges and roadway crossings.Based on the NDDOT evaluations, the No-Build Alternative, which included only minor improvements on routine maintenance and safety operations, would not provide any truly significant safety or operational improvements. This alternative was used as the baseline against which to evaluate improvements from the other alternatives.
The TSM Alternative sought to maximize the efficiency of the existing roadway and included: consideration of a variety of transportation demand management (TDM) strategies such as encouraging carpooling and guaranteed ride home programs; implementation of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies such as coordinated signal control, ramp metering, and implementation of high occupancy vehicle lanes. While several of these strategies would result in some operational improvements, the improvements were not significant enough to fully address future congestion issues on their own. Although the TSM Alternative was not selected, some of these strategies were incorporated into the entire package of improvements comprising the Preferred Alternative.
The Mass Transit Alternative focused on implementing a new light rail system. Due to the low density of population in the project area and in Fargo as a whole, along with the relatively short vehicle trips taken in the Fargo area, the light rail alternative would not likely alleviate congestion along I-29. Additionally, the cost of a light rail system actually exceeded the proposed cost of the project.
The Reconstruct / Recycle Four-Lane Alternative included maintaining existing width, resurfacing the roadway, and adding auxiliary lanes where appropriate, to increase operational traffic speed. While this alternative addressed the deterioration issues, it did not adequately address congestion.
Environmental and Other Issues
Summary of Environmental Issues
No major environmental impacts were identified as a result of the proposed project. However, the environmental issues that were identified included: right-of-way / relocation impacts; increased traffic in some neighborhoods; and the potential increase in noise levels. Of these concerns, only the increased traffic in neighborhoods and noise levels along the corridor proved to be areas of controversy in terms of community cohesion issues. In general, the project was compatible with the local transportation system and existing land usage, and was in compliance with air quality standards.
Business relocation impacts were considered to be minimal, given the overall business community that is present in the Fargo area. Only two businesses and an amusement park were impacted.
A number of residents near one of the interchange improvements were concerned about the potential negative social aspects related to the increased traffic due to increased interchange capacity of the proposed improvements and the grade separation at the 17th Avenue intersection. Their concerns regarding community cohesion included increased traffic volumes, decreased safety for pedestrians and school children, neighborhood congestion, decreased property values, business relocation, and increased noise levels.
"Primary concerns for completing the EIS were noise impacts and the controversy associated with increased traffic through neighborhoods."
–Mark Gaydos, NDDOT
Early on in the NEPA process there had been threats of a lawsuit regarding these areas of controversy. However, in an effort to minimize the number of potential conflicts and eliminate the possibility of a lawsuit, measures were taken to enhance the overall cohesion of the community with proposed pedestrian / bicycle crossings. Other mitigation measures included: sidewalk extensions; stop control on side streets near school routes; new bikeways and facilities; and a reduced number of turning movements at major intersections.
The potential increase in noise levels due to the increase in traffic required a noise study for the corridor. The information regarding noise impacts and potential noise barrier construction as mitigation that was presented in the Draft EIS was further evaluated in terms of feasibility and reasonableness and presented in the Final EIS. It was concluded that most areas along the corridor would not be impacted in terms of noise. In the one area where it was found that noise impacts would result from the proposed project, it was determined that noise barrier construction was not reasonable due to its high cost in relation to the benefits that would be received. The team involved in making these determinations included both NDDOT staff and City of Fargo staff.
A list of specific mitigation commitments was provided in the Final EIS.
As of August 2002, the project is already under construction. Construction of all corridor improvements is expected to be completed in 2005.
Capitalizing on an Earlier Study
The Westside Access Study was an essential component in the advancement of the NEPA process. Most of the potential improvements and likely impacts presented in the EIS had already been identified in this earlier study. This study helped to locate the necessary new structures, additional lanes, grade separations, lighting, and also the opportunity to develop an Intelligent Transportation System (ITS). In addition, the study demonstrated that only a limited number of agencies would likely be involved in the process as key players, which would help to expedite the project through NEPA and into the construction phase.
Key Agencies Involved in the NEPA Process
Due to the ability to resolve all issues associated with the project and the fact that there was minimal agency coordination necessary, this process moved fairly quickly. The NDDOT prepared this document in-house by developing a project team to provide input, review, and resolution to the project issues; no consultant was used. The team included NDDOT, FHWA, the City of Fargo, and FMCOG. This team met about every three to four months. Preparation was based in accordance with FHWA guidance and reference materials. This included: the FHWA Environmental Guidebook, Practical Project Development and Environmental Documentation — NEPA/Section 4(f) Applied to Transportation Projects; Technical Advisory 6640.8A, Guidance for Preparing and Processing Environmental and Section 4(f) Documents; and guidance regarding the evaluation of noise impacts.
In addition to a research group, one person was primarily responsible for the overall writing, in order to keep the same context and style. Finally, an independent person, not associated with the direct preparation work, reviewed the material for clarity. This was not a typical procedure for NDDOT; however, due to the relative simplicity of the project, it seemed reasonable and feasible. The ability to complete the work with minimal outside involvement also led to the expedited NEPA process.
The Interstate 29 Reconstruction project from Rose Coulee to Cass County Road No. 20 did not specifically use any NEPA streamlining procedures, but it was a great example of how to coordinate an EIS on less complex highway improvement and reconstruction projects that could be applied to any NEPA streamlining processes.