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NEPA Process

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Listed below are examples of success stories, best practices, and/or innovative tools/approaches. This section will grow as entries are submitted or links to other sites with useful examples are provided. If you believe your agency has utilized a best practice/approach that others could learn from, please submit a short description to AASHTO (including any pertinent links) on the Share Info with AASHTO form. Please note that currently submissions are only being accepted from governmental entities.

Ohio

Ohio DOT Launches Expanded Online Environmental Documentation System

The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) has launched an expanded and renamed version of its online environmental documentation system and is steadily adding time-saving bells and whistles.  The system, formerly known as CE Online, has been rebranded ENVIRONET to reflect the comprehensive capabilities of the system and to allow for future planned enhancements.

ENVIRONET facilitates the electronic processing of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documents. Categorical exclusions (CEs) can be fully completed online because the forms are built into the system. The associated electronic project file houses supporting documentation. While Environmental Assessments (EAs) and Environmental Impact Statement (EISs) still need to be completed outside the system, both the environmental document and its associated documentation are uploaded to the electronic project file set up for the project. 

The electronic project file is a very important part of the system since it allows real-time access to draft and final supporting documents.  Subject matter reviewers can check out draft technical reports, make comments, and check them back in.  Once the technical report is approved, it can be finalized in the system.  This capability allows for version control and the system also tracks when documents were uploaded, when they were modified, and by whom.

 
  EnviroNet System Screenshot, Courtesy Ohio DOT

The system also provides a standardized process for uploading reports, technical studies, agency coordination, and decision-making documents. It allows the user to select appropriate drop-down options to consistently name documentation. The process is capped off with an electronic review and approval function, meaning no printing, signing, scanning and uploading is required.  Users have access to particular sections of the system based on their respective roles.

“Rebranding is a reminder that our system offers more than just streamlining CE preparations,” said ODOT Assistant Environmental Administrator Erica Schneider.  “One of EnviroNet’s greatest benefits is that it provides all sorts of real-time information to our project team.  There’s no longer a need for mailing or e-mailing information back and forth.”

ODOT has continued to save approximately $100,000 per year since its CE Online went live in 2012, Schneider said.  Even better, savings could double as additional enhancements are added. 

NEPA Assignment a Motivator

In December 2015, ODOT assumed federal authority for NEPA reviews from the Federal Highway Administration, giving the state agency added responsibilities for ensuring environmental compliance.  These new responsibilities provided additional motivation to add new capabilities to the system, explained Kevin Davis, Environmental Supervisor with ODOT. For example, the system now includes a Project Details Tab that allows ODOT users to enter dates for specific environmental milestones related to the project, whether it’s a CE (the vast majority), EA, or an EIS.

“We now are required to closely track time savings,” he explained. “Using the project file, we can access completion dates for each stage of a project from start to finish.  With these details in hand, we can identify exactly where we are saving time or, in some cases, exactly where we need to find ways to work more efficiently.”

Another recent addition is the FHWA Auditing Tool. During annual audits under the NEPA assignment program, auditors can log in at the home page, select the date range they are seeking, and view all of the documents approved during that time period.

Lessons Learned, Advice to Other DOTs

In planning and developing enhancements to ENVIRONET, ODOT has gathered suggestions from inside the agency and also used information from similar online systems in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Texas. Virginia DOT, for example, has integrated a GIS component into its system, an enhancement ODOT now is considering.

Schneider said developing an effective system that can be built to grow and adapt requires funding, patience, and time. The original system cost about $600,000 to develop and it took just over a year.

She offered the following advice to other DOTs contemplating building similar systems:

  • Gain and maintain strong support from upper management.
  • Develop a front-end detailed communications plan.  Processes, roles, and protocols should be clearly spelled out to avoid duplication and misunderstandings. 
  • Plan on dedicating a lot of time to working with programmers and subject matter experts as the system is developed.
  • Involve everyday users of the system at the beginning of development.  Learn about their needs and solicit their ideas. Before deployment, carry out user acceptance testing and make changes where needed.
  • Provide comprehensive training to all users. Go beyond “train-the-trainer.” Conduct classroom training. Develop a website that provides guidance on tasks such as how to check out a document for review.

Looking Ahead

As of October 2016, more than 6,600 projects were housed in ENVIRONET including approved documents, those in process, and those submitted for review and/or approval.  More than 600 people had been granted access to the system, including ODOT staff, regulatory agencies, and consultants. The eventual goal, Schneider said, is for all involved resource agencies to carry out their reviews using ENVIRONET and to make all approved environmental documents available to the public online.

Another planned enhancement will facilitate the completion and coordination of Ecological Survey Reports. Under the current system, regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service receive as many as 60-70 such reports a month.  They are uploaded to an internal local drive and sent out in batches via an extranet site at the end of the month.  The new feature, which would incorporate the report into the CE form, is scheduled for incorporation in  2017.

For more information, contact Kevin E. Davis at Kevin.Davis@dot.ohio.gov or Erica Schneider at Erica.Schneider@dot.state.oh.us of the Office of Environmental Services at ODOT or visit the Office of Environmental Services Environmental Documentation web page.

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Texas

TxDOT Accrues Multiple Benefits from NEPA Assignment Responsibilities

The Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) assumption of authority for the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) responsibilities for environmental review and approval is providing multiple streamlining benefits, saving time and money in the review process while still protecting the state’s natural resources.  

TxDOT is the second state transportation agency in the nation to assume full environmental review authority from FHWA.  California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) was the first to take on the role under a pilot program launched under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). Then, under MAP-21, the program was expanded and made permanent.  Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) became the third state in December 2015. Four other state transportation agencies are in the process of applying for NEPA assignment: Alaska, Florida, Idaho, and Utah.  In addition, Utah and Alaska have Categorical Exclusion-level assignment under the pilot program.

In late 2015, TxDOT marked its one year anniversary in the program and has been “pleased with the results so far,” said Carlos Swonke, Director of the agency’s Environmental Affairs Division.

For Texas, the new authority brings the following benefits:

  • provides time and cost savings;
  • eliminates a layer of review;
  • involves no reduction in environmental considerations;
  • allows direct consultation between TxDOT and federal regulatory agencies;
  • enables quick turnaround time for project decisions; and
  • allows for more control of project planning and scheduling.

Contents of the MOU

Details on the new authority are spelled out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) the two agencies developed and signed in 2014. The MOU sets forth how TxDOT will implement the Surface Transportation Project Delivery Program (sometimes referred to as the NEPA Assignment Program) under MAP-21.  The MAP-21 provisions enable all state transportation agencies to apply to be assigned federal environmental review authority from the FHWA under the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws. TxDOT requested, and was granted, the full authority under the program with the exception of three projects that remained with FHWA as the lead agency. 

TxDOT’s NEPA review responsibilities include determining, for individual projects, whether potential impacts merit an environmental impact statement, an environmental assessment, or a categorical exclusion.  For Texas, determinations for categorical exclusion-level projects are done at the district (regional) level.  Projects involving environmental impact statements or environmental assessments are coordinated, reviewed, and approved at the division (central) office level.

Besides these NEPA review responsibilities, TxDOT also has taken on some of FHWA's responsibilities for highway projects under other environmental laws.  The laws include the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and Historic Preservation Act.  Notably, MAP-21 precludes states from taking on federal responsibility for government-to-government consultation with Indian tribes or for conformity determinations under the Clean Air Act. In addition, under the MOU, FHWA retains responsibility for projects that cross state lines and international boundaries.

Four performance measures are identified in the MOU: (1) compliance with NEPA and other Federal environmental statutes and regulations; (2) quality control and quality assurance for NEPA decisions; (3) relationships with agencies and the general public; and (4) increased efficiency and timeliness and completion of the NEPA process.

Swonke said that his agency’s MOU generally followed the Caltrans format. And now that it is in place, it appears that FHWA will be using it as something of a template for other states coming into the program.

 
 TxDOT employees receive training to prepare for NEPA assignment. Photo: TxDOT 

 Preparing for NEPA Assignment

To prepare TxDOT staff for the new role, he continued, the agency has established a more rigorous process for project review and documentation.  It also has created time for training on topics such as documentation and records management, and has updated its NEPA-related manuals. In addition, the agency has instituted a robust quality assurance/quality control process.  TxDOT also maintains close communication with its district offices on changes in laws or executive orders that may affect the new responsibilities. Finally, it intends to communicate regularly about its assignment activities to stakeholder organizations.    

FHWA, for its part, has assumed the role of program oversight and review and issues progress reports to Congress. It also has taken on training and technical assistance.  Under MAP-21, FHWA must carry out two audits annually during the first two years that a state DOT assumes NEPA assignment and once in the third and fourth year. The audits include identification of successful practices as well as opportunities for improvement. Thus far, TxDOT has conducted environmental approvals on more than 1,600 projects, with the majority of these being categorical exclusion determinations.  

Application Process, Pluses and Minuses

TxDOT began to consider applying for the program in 2012 when there was talk about extending the pilot program but before MAP-21 was passed.  When MAP-21 passed, TxDOT leadership gave the green light to take the first steps.

The formal process began with securing a limited waiver of sovereign immunity that the state legislature passed in the spring of 2013, said Swonke.  Under the waiver, TxDOT NEPA actions and decisions could be subject to federal court jurisdiction.

Next, the agency wrote a letter to FHWA expressing its interest in taking on NEPA assignment.  It circulated its draft application for assignment for public comment as well as its draft MOU. After considering feedback on both documents, the MOU was finalized and signed by TxDOT and FHWA on December 16, 2014, and TxDOT began to take on its new responsibilities.

Benefits and Advice

As a result of taking on NEPA Assignment, Swonke said, TxDOT has made its review and approval process much more systematic, which provides greater consistency.  In addition, the requirement for the state agency to have a self-assessment program has yielded a wide range of insightful information that is used to measure and improve the program.

He had one major suggestion for other state DOTS contemplating seeking NEPA assignment:  early on, take an inventory of your technical expertise and the tools in hand that will guide your process.  Both need to be up to the challenge of making decisions independently.

Just after the one-year point, Swonke said TxDOT’s program was still adapting to the change. “I am hoping the majority of our evolution will be complete a year from now,” he said.

For more information, contact Carlos Swonke, Director, TxDOT Environmental Affairs Division, at Carlos.Swonke@txdot.gov  or go to http://www.txdot.gov/inside-txdot/division/environmental/nepa-assignment.html.

In addition, see materials from AASHTO’s 2015 Peer Exchange on NEPA assumption.

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FHWA Compilations

State Practices

Case studies and best practices related to the NEPA Process can be found on FHWA's State Practices Database.

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Featured Case Study

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    Ohio DOT's expanded online environmental documentation system offers cost and time savings.

    Read Case Study >Photo: Ohio DOT

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