Linking the Planning and NEPA processes helps State DOTs and resource agencies avoid duplicative processes, make better decisions, and realize environmental stewardship and streamlining goals. Here, New Mexico Secretary of Transportation, Rhonda Faught, participates at the Manager's Workshop.
Empowering Participants to Improve Planning and Environmental Review
Successful environmental streamlining depends on the ability of key participants to assess and modify the way they have traditionally done business. Given the right mechanisms and support, staff from local, State, and Federal agencies can effect meaningful change to expedite the environmental review process and promote better environmental decisions — while continuing to improve the transportation system. Accordingly, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) are jointly sponsoring a series of workshops to promote strategies for better integrating the planning and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) processes. Titled "Linking Planning and NEPA," these workshops have been held in 12 States to date, and planning is underway for 8 more. These workshops are offered through the National Highway Institute and the National Transit Institute.
Why Link Planning with NEPA?
The underlying philosophy behind the "Linking Planning and NEPA" workshops is to minimize duplicative processes by identifying and utilizing linkages — that is, finding opportunities to use work done in one process in the subsequent process.
When the two processes are linked, resource agencies and other partners get involved in the early stages of transportation planning. This early collaboration results in better understanding of transportation and resource needs in an area. With active stakeholder involvement and adequate consideration of environmental factors, decisions generally made in the planning process, such as design concept and scope, should not need to be analyzed again in NEPA.
Additionally, bringing multiple partners together in the planning phase can reduce potential conflicts down the line. Agencies often develop their plans independently, which can result in contradictory transportation, land use, watershed, and habitat conservation plans for the same region. Sharing information early enables more cohesive and comprehensive planning for all agencies.
FHWA and FTA's New Workshop Series
FHWA emphasizes that the "Linking Planning and NEPA" workshops are different than typical training courses. The focus of these workshops is on participation, including addressing the salient issues that States face as they develop concrete action plans to link these processes.
The Work before the Workshops
Since every State is at a different point in the continuum of linking the planning and NEPA processes, FHWA and FTA spend considerable time tailoring each workshop to meet local expectations and needs. In preparation for each workshop, FHWA and FTA arrange conference calls with the Division office, the DOT, and sometimes the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and resource agencies in that State to reach agreement on the workshop objectives and format. In addition, questionnaires are sent out in advance to workshop participants, allowing the sessions to be tailored to participant responses.
FHWA and FTA have found that the major indicator of success for the workshops is having the right people in the room. In fact, a workshop will be postponed or rescheduled to ensure that key State decisionmakers attend, because without their participation, the resulting decisions have little value. The people who attend must know the existing processes and be able to effect change. Critical attendees include representatives from State, county, and local DOTs; MPOs; State and Federal resource agencies; land use agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, and tribal governments, when appropriate.
The facilitated workshops are organized into two components: an Executive Session and a Managers Workshop. The former lays the foundation for the latter.
Don't Miss Out
Interest in the "Linking Planning and NEPA" Workshops is growing.
- In 2004, FHWA asked for volunteers interested in developing a workshop for their State. So far, workshops have been held in Arkansas, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arizona, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, Maine, and Missouri.
- For 2005, workshops are being scheduled in Indiana, New Jersey, South Dakota, California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. But the workshop calendar is full!
- More workshops will be planned for 2006 — space is still available.
Executive Session: Developing a Charge for Process Change
The four-hour Executive Session provides an opportunity for 20 to 30 key directors to discuss existing planning and NEPA processes in their State and to identify areas where improvements can better link the two processes. The focus is on developing a "Charge for Process Change," which gives authority to managers attending the subsequent three-day workshop to make decisions and commitments about critical process issues. The Charge could take a general tone (e.g., indicate that linking the planning and NEPA processes is a good idea and should be pursued), or it could be specific (e.g., indicate particular issues, such as data sharing, that managers should discuss in detail).
Managers Workshop: Developing an Action Plan
The three-day Managers Workshop continues the discussion initiated in the Executive Session (and recorded in the Charge for Process Change) with the goal of developing an Action Plan to advance agreed-upon strategies for linking the planning and NEPA processes.
Each workshop begins with a presentation of the current planning and project development process by representatives of the State DOT or MPO. When appropriate, a resource agency might also describe their process and how they make decisions, as well as how they see their agency fitting into the transportation decisionmaking process. The bulk of the workshop then centers on a group discussion of what linkages exist in the transportation planning and NEPA processes, and what changes could better integrate these processes.
Having executive buy-in frees the managers to make commitments regarding process changes and to document them in an Action Plan. Some States design Action Plans with very specific follow-up actions, such as the creation of a shared GIS database to manage data-sharing and staffing challenges. Others are more general, such as a simple agreement to continue discussions or to create a task force to explore a process point in more detail. FHWA and FTA Headquarters work with their Division and Regional Offices, respectively, to maintain the momentum on the Action Plans.
How to Bring the "Linking Planning and NEPA" Workshop to your State
Since the first series of workshops in 2004, FHWA and FTA Headquarters have worked through FHWA Division Offices and FTA Regional Offices to organize additional State-specific workshops. There is a full calendar of workshops for 2005, but plans exist to organize more in 2006. To learn about developing a workshop for your State, contact your FHWA Division Office or FTA Regional Office. You may soon be a part of an innovative method for successful environmental streamlining.
New Jersey has set dates for the "Linking Planning and NEPA" workshops. The Executive Session will take place on
February 2, 2005. The Managers Workshop will follow on February 22—24.
Planning Capacity Building
Federal Highway Administration
400 Seventh Street SW
Washington, DC 20590
Phone: (202) 493-2139