US-93 Corridor in Montana.
Photo taken from FHWA's Public Roads Magazine,
July/August 2003 issue.
Acknowledging the Problem and Seeking Solutions: A National Initiative
In 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) introduced a much-needed framework for protecting the environment from adverse impacts stemming from the actions of Federal agencies. Since then, however, there has been growing concern that the NEPA process can be a cumbersome exercise that impedes project implementation, resulting in increases to projects' schedules and costs and delays to improvements in safety and mobility for travelers. Accordingly, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is undertaking a national initiative to address this concern. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) Section 1309 mandated Environmental Streamlining as the timely delivery of transportation projects while protecting and enhancing the environment. Furthermore, in Executive Order 13274 Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Project Reviews, President Bush called for the creation of a national task force on environmental streamlining.
Developing Performance Measures is Critical
The FHWA is committed to addressing the issue of timliness in the NEPA process by setting expectations, measures, and methods for advancing an improved and efficient environmental review process. In January 2001, NEPA professionals at FHWA and the Louis Berger Group compiled "Evaluating the Performance of Environmental Streamlining: Development of a NEPA Baseline for Measuring Continuous Performance" (Berger Study Phase I), a study that began the analysis for setting a benchmark. The study group selected 100 projects at random for which the Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) were completed between the early 1970s and the early 1990s. The focus was on EISs rather than other environmental documentation, such as Environmental Assessments (EAs) or Categorical Exclusions (CEs), because the greatest potential for project delay associated with the environmental review process is related to EISs. Thus, the study group determined that the EIS would be a good gauge of process efficiency.
The Berger Study Phase I found that the mean length of time taken to prepare an EIS during the first 30 years of NEPA (1970-2000) was 3.6+ years, while the median length of time was 3.0 years. Both findings could serve as a reasonable benchmark for evaluating environmental review. However, to determine where delays can occur in the EIS process, the study group wanted a more refined and updated picture of the EIS context.
Focusing on the Current EIS Process Increases Accuracy in Phase II
In 2003, a subsequent report, "Evaluating the Performance of Environmental Streamlining: Phase II" (Berger Study Phase II), was compiled by the same study group. The methodology for conducting this study differed from the Berger Study Phase I in several ways:
The group considered only EISs that were completed between 1995 and 2001. This shorter, more recent time frame is important because it allowed the study to focus on the current situation confronting the NEPA process, and not whatever "growing pains" it may have had since its inception. Also, this time frame does not include any of the projects that were included in the Berger Study Phase I, since that study did not consider any EISs completed after the early 1990s. This allowed for some comparisons to be drawn between the projects from the two time periods.
Berger Study Phase II considered all of the EISs that were completed during the set time frame. Because this time frame is considerably shorter than that used in Phase I, it was not necessary to choose EISs at random; the increased variable set was intended to improve the overall statistical reliability of the study.
Berger Study Phase II did not require that a project's construction be complete. This requirement in Phase I had limited the number of projects that could be used in that analysis. Dropping this condition enabled the Berger Study Phase II to focus on the NEPA process itself, rather than the entire project delivery process. The temporal relationship between the NEPA process and overall project delivery had been established during Phase I. (The NEPA process accounted for approximately 28% of the total time required for the entire project development process)
The study group conducted statistical analysis of all but 6 of the 250 EISs completed from 1995 to 2001, as identified from Northwestern University's Transportation Library database http://www.library.northwestern.edu/transportation/, which contains more than 4,000 EIS documents from around the country. The team calculated the EIS preparation time by using the official date of the Notice of Intent from the Federal Register as the starting point, and the date of the signing of the Record of Decision as the ending point. Using a variety of statistical techniques, the team concluded that the mean preparation time for an EIS, based on actual NEPA process times, was 5.1 years and the median was 4.7 years. Both of these values were higher that the mean and median values as identified in the Berger Study Phase I.
Other findings were broken down by regions of the United States. The former FHWA Region 4 (Southeast) had the longest EIS preparation time, while former Region 8 (Rocky Mountain states) and former Region 6 (South Central) were found to take the shortest lengths of time. The study group attempted to incorporate process-related variables, such as number of state agencies commenting on the EIS and the requirement of a Coast Guard Bridge permit or a Section 4(f) evaluation. Some trends were identified when assessing length of EIS time in relation to some of these other variables.
Understanding a Complex Process: The Work Continues
The baseline studies described here will contribute to the understanding of the complex environmental review process, providing a benchmark against which other EISs for transportation projects can be measured. Additionally, other tools are being put into place that also address project timeliness. For example, the FHWA internal website hosts an Environmental Document Tracking System (EDTS) that enables users to track and analyze the timeliness of project progress. Individuals in Federal Division Offices and Federal Lands field offices can use EDTS to record and update key project information, set time frames, and monitor the progress of their active EISs and EAs. This level of monitoring will provide useful information about time requirements and factors that hinder project delivery, advancing the development of environmental streamlining performance measures.
Kreig (Chip) Larson
FHWA Office of Project Development
and Environmental Review
400 7th Street SW, Room 3222
Washington, DC 20590
Phone: (202) 366-2056
Fax: (202) 366-7660
Look What's New!
NHI will be offering two NEPA classes this month. Course #142005: NEPA and the Transportation Decision Making Process will be held in Boise, ID February 10-12 and in Nashville, TN February 17-19. Visit http://www.nhi.fhwa.dot.gov for more information.