Overview of Success
Michigan is one of only two states in the country where wetlands permitting authority rests with the state. (New Jersey is the other.) A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), developed in 1985 and renewed annually, formalizes the NEPA/Section 404 process between MDOT, MDEQ, the County Road Association of Michigan, and the Michigan Municipal League. The delegation of Section 404 wetlands permitting authority to the state and the MOU provide extra resources for the permitting process and enable Michigan to customize the program to its particular needs and focus on transportation approaches that might not be available under a strictly federal permitting system. The majority of state transportation projects have "one-stop-shopping" for permits: only one permit application needs to be filed with usually just one agency (MDEQ). In any given year, five percent or less of all projects requires U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) permits because they impact navigable waters.
Dedicated Funding and Expanded Resources
Michigan's MOU ensures that limited state transportation revenue is most efficiently utilized. For example, the need for public transportation agencies to pay permit fees has been eliminated. The MOU also expands staff resources. Like many state environmental agencies, MDEQ was too short on staff to review permits efficiently. Under the MOU, MDOT funds 11 fulltime MDEQ-managed positions dedicated to servicing transportation wetlands permitting actions at the state and local level. The MOU requires MDEQ to have a single point of contact for all Michigan public transportation agencies. With more staff, MDEQ provides guidance, education, and training prior to permit application. In addition, by working throughout the state in regional offices instead of in one central location, MDEQ staff are on-call toevaluate projects, delineate wetlands, and lessen environmental impacts with MDOT staff in the field. They can also expedite permit reviews, avoid delays, and protect the local environment. "Because there is a dedicated MDEQ staff committed to servicing transportation, MDEQ can and does participate in most field reviews with MDOT staff," explains James Kirschensteiner of the Federal Highway Administration's Michigan Division. "They provide real, meaningful, and prompt comments to MDOT designers in a very timely manner during project development. The MDEQ staff becomes very familiar with the project in this way so that, when a permit request comes in, they already know the project and the issues involved with it."
Improved Interagency Working Relationships
MDOT and MDEQ are part of the Joint Agency Transportation Committee, which was formed to implement the MOU. Quarterly meetings allow MDEQ, MDOT, and other public transportation agencies throughout Michigan to give input on projects. In addition, the Committee provides specific guidance to participating agencies, addresses transportation issues and problems, assists in training, and provides a format for resolving conflicts. MDOT, MDEQ, and local transportation and environmental agencies have been able to develop working relationships based on trust as a result of the Committee. According to James Kirschensteiner, the MOU has built "mutual respect and trust" between "potentially adversarial agencies."
Faster Permit Processing
More staff has allowed MDEQ to focus and expand its services. MDEQ is committed to processing permit actions within 60 days (90 days if EPA review is required). Some permit actions are even complete within 30 days. However, wetlands permits are not automatic. MDEQ action could include denial of the permit or a request for more information. The 60-day timeframe allows MDOT to improve its project planning. This speedy permitting process ensures that both the environmental and community needs of transportation projects are being considered early, objectively, and efficiently.
Michigan's MOU has given MDEQ the resources and expertise to implement flexible mitigation strategies. MDEQ is expanding the concept of General Permit (GP) categories to allow maximum flexibility in replacing wetlands. Public transportation agencies can create and use Moment of Opportunity (MOO) wetlands (wetlands acres above what is required by permit) to mitigate for losses under the GP category. Michigan is currently looking into using MOO wetlands as credits towards future mitigation. Flexible mitigation strategies like MOO wetlands are helping to create functional wetlands for all Michigan transportation projects with impacted wetlands.
Delegation of Section 404 wetlands permitting authority to the state allows Michigan to customize an expedited, "one-stop-shopping" permit process.
The Michigan Department of Transportation's (MDOT) Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) establishes accountability through mutually agreed upon interagency priorities. Early involvement of MDEQ in transportation planning and project development has built a good working relationship based on respect and trust.
MDOT funds 11 fulltime MDEQ-managed positions dedicated to servicing transportation wetlands permitting actions. With increased staff, MDEQ can become involved early in transportation planning and project development, which expedites the review of transportation projects and protects the environment.
MDEQ staff located throughout the state work directly in the field with MDOT staff to delineate wetlands and review projects. Time for permit review is lessened because needs are met early on by a dedicated, on-call MDEQ staff already familiar with local transportation projects and the local environment.
With dedicated funding and staff outlined in the MOU, MDEQ is able to research and explore flexible mitigation strategies, such as Moment of Opportunity wetlands, that further protect wetlands and the environment.
Before 1985, MDOT had a difficult time getting environmental permits in a timely fashion from the then Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). DNR was simply too short staffed to process permits efficiently. In response, the two agencies agreed that MDOT would fund a number of DNR positions for wetlands permitting. The DNR staff would provide technical assistance and prioritized permitting services to MDOT and 21 County Road Commissions in southern Michigan.
In 1992, a committee comprised of MDOT, the County Road Association of Michigan, and the Michigan Municipal League structured a pilot MOU to expand coverage statewide, ensure consistent service, improve financial accountability, respond to changes in environmental regulations, and streamline the permitting process. Two MDEQ personnel were placed in regional offices, and MDEQ staff committed to acting on permits within 60 days. The success of this demonstration project lead to an expanded MOU in 1994.
The environmental streamlining goals of the 1994 MOU, which continues today, are to expedite the permit process, prioritize permitting services, obtain better technical assistance from MDEQ, ensure consistency, and protect Michigan's environment.