The Florida Department of Transportation has developed comprehensive guidance on determining the potential cumulative effects of transportation projects on sensitive resources in the state.
The Cumulative Effects Evaluation Handbook is intended to provide a standard process that is efficient, legally sound, and flexible while ensuring that potential impacts on resources are fully considered and documented in the environmental review process, according to Marjorie Bixby, manager of the Environmental Management Office at FDOT.
The handbook, published in December 2012, outlines when cumulative effects evaluations are needed and provides a 10-step process to guide practitioners. The goals of the process were to provide legally sufficient evaluations; enable project time and cost savings through an efficient, standardized approach; reduce sources of disagreement over methodologies; identify potentially controversial projects early in project development; and reduce costs by using area-wide evaluations for multiple projects.
Bixby, along with FDOT Natural & Community Resources Administrator Xavier Pagan, said that development of the handbook has provided needed consistency in a process that had often been complex, confusing, and time consuming. The handbook was developed with input from state and federal transportation agencies, resource agencies, and other stakeholders such as planning organizations.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act, environmental impacts must be considered for federal actions – such as federally funded or permitted highway projects. Such impacts include direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of the action. Quoting regulatory definitions, the handbook says direct effects “are caused by the action and occur at the same time and place” and indirect effects “are caused by the action and are later in time or farther removed in distance, but are still reasonably foreseeable.”
“Cumulative impact is the impact on the environment which results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency (Federal or non-Federal) or person undertakes such other actions.”
While transportation agencies generally have had success analyzing direct and indirect effects for their projects, cumulative effects analyses have been more problematic – resulting in an increasing number of successful legal challenges in recent years.
The handbook describes how cumulative effects evaluation differs based on the project’s class of action under NEPA – categorical exclusion, environmental assessment, or environmental impact statement. It also provides guidance on types of projects for which a cumulative effects evaluation might be appropriate. These include: new facilities or those requiring substantial right-of-way; projects with direct or indirect impacts on environmental resources, particularly resources that are declining or that have protected status; projects that increase access to areas suitable for development; and projects where other planned actions may impact resources affected by the project.
When further analysis is needed to address concerns about cumulative effects, a cumulative effects analysis should be conducted, focused on specific resources of concern. The handbook outlines the following 10 steps:
- Initiate the cumulative effects evaluation: this can be done early in the process, during scoping, to help focus studies on resources of concern.
- Identify resources of concern: this includes elements of the natural and human environment — focusing on resources in poor or declining conditions that may be substantially affected by the project or other activities in the area.
- Define the study time frame: this involves establishing and documenting the outer years of the time horizon for identifying past and future effects.
- Determine the potentially affected resource area (PARA): this is the geographic study area used in the evaluation and should encompass the resources affected by the project to the extent in which its alternatives contribute to the cumulative effects on the resources
- Evaluate past and present impacts on the resource: this includes an analysis of past and present effects, including the current condition of each resource, how it got to its current state, and major trends affecting the health of the resource – including protective regulations or conservation programs.
- Evaluate effects of reasonably foreseeable future actions: this includes identifying future actions that may affect the resources of concern – including all types of actions, not just transportation projects – and describing the direct and indirect effects of these actions.
- Add direct and indirect effects of build alternatives: this summarizes the direct and indirect effects of the project alternatives, focusing on resources of concern for the evaluation.
- Assess the potential for cumulative effects: this involves using information from previous steps to consider how a particular resource responds to change and to estimate the combine effects on each resource of concern. Each project alternative is evaluated separately.
- Identify potential mitigation measures: all relevant reasonable mitigation measures to avoid, lessen, remedy or compensate for adverse effects must be identified and discussed, even if they are outside the jurisdiction of the agency.
- Document results: this involves completing the cumulative effects evaluation portion of the environmental document, using the level of detail appropriate for the class of action. The evaluation should be separate from the direct and indirect effects. The cumulative effects evaluation “should explain what the effects are, how they were analyzed, why the analysis methodology(s) are reasonable, and what the results of the analysis mean.”
According to the document, “It is important that all of the identified analytical elements be included in the cumulative effects evaluation. However, the steps may be modified to meet the needs of the project. The level of assessment and documentation depends on the nature of the project, the severity of impacts, and the potential for controversy.”
While the 10-step process is aimed at the project development phase for individual projects, the guide also allows for initiating the process in area-wide planning. Following this approach, the first six steps would begin during area-wide planning without focusing on any specific project, allowing the resource-based analysis to be used on any project proposed in the area.
Developing the Process
FDOT officials noted that the process was developed starting in 2006, following release of guidance from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program and AASHTO on indirect and cumulative effects.
Previously, each FDOT evaluation was done slightly differently, on a case-by-case basis. But Pagan said as more projects came online, the agency realized this approach was not workable. FDOT decided it needed a simpler and more consistent process. “We realized we can’t have it be case by case; we’re too big of a state, with too many projects and too many NEPA studies not to have a standard process,” he said.
A task group was assigned to develop the cumulative effects evaluation process, including representatives from 11 state and federal agencies, metropolitan planning organizations, FDOT districts and Turnpike Enterprise, legal counsel, and consultants. The process also needed to fit with FDOT’s Efficient Transportation Decision Making (ETDM) process, the state’s comprehensive approach for considering potential environmental effects during transportation planning. The process was developed over several years under former FDOT employee George Ballo and a team composed of the Central Environmental Management Office staff and consultants.
The cumulative effects evaluation process was based on research of effective practices used by state DOTs, input from stakeholders, as well as case law to help determine a sound process for such evaluations.
Pagan said having the cumulative effects evaluation process documented in a handbook is an effective way to ensure consistent application for FDOT. Since publication of the handbook, about 7 environmental impact statements have been prepared using the process, and the document has been well received by transportation practitioners and resource agencies alike, he added.
The FDOT process could be replicated by other state DOTs, he said, noting that the handbook was based in part on successful procedures developed by transportation agencies in California and Texas. Pagan and Bixby both said a key issue in developing the process was defining terms such as direct effects, indirect effects (previously known as secondary effects), and cumulative impacts. “Stakeholders needed to understand that those terms represent different things and how those things apply to transportation project delivery,” Bixby said.
Initially, FDOT had called its process the “indirect and cumulative effects process,” Pagan said. “One of the things that became obvious was that we needed to separate them.” Some stakeholders did not realize that you cannot have a cumulative impact if there are no direct or indirect impacts, he added.
Pagan also noted that agencies conducting cumulative effects analyses should use caution in identifying resources of concern. “If you’re going to identify resources of concern early, don’t make effects determinations during planning that can tie you down or cause issues when it’s not really appropriate to do so that early,” he said. “If you’re going to do it really early, be careful how you do it.”
In addition, Bixby advised being “open and communicative with the relevant agencies and stakeholders – and keep the agency with jurisdiction over the resource informed.” Because these groups helped FDOT develop its process, the handbook encourages things like looking at long-range plans, talking to metropolitan planning organizations, and talking to counties about their development plans. “It’s important to get the right players involved,” Pagan added.
“Ultimately we see that it’s very important to have a standardized process that in itself is flexible enough to apply to all sorts of situations, depending on the nature of the project and the nature of the resources in the project area,” Bixby said. The 10-step process can be applied to a variety of situations and adjusted as needed. At the same time, it documents that FDOT has carefully conducted a thorough cumulative effects determination, she added.
For more information, link to the Cumulative Effects Evaluation Handbook and the accompanying Cumulative Effects Evaluation Quick Guide; or contact Marjorie Bixby, Manager, FDOT Central Environmental Management Office, at [email protected].