engineer takes notes on clipboard.

A guidance document developed for the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) will provide needed consistency and efficient procedures for determining the indirect land use and environmental effects of transportation projects in the state.

Issued in the summer of 2013, MDT’s Indirect Effects Desk Reference provides an overview of regulatory requirements related to indirect effects, a step-by-step screening process to determine what level of analysis is warranted and a framework for conducting detailed analyses, where needed.

View from Montana Highway 200. (Photo: Montana DOT)

MDT developed the guidance to help agency staff and consultants determine the potential for induced growth effects from road projects, taking into account the state’s unique rural setting, according to Heidy Bruner, Environmental Services Engineering Section Supervisor at MDT.  MDT plans to incorporate the guidance into its Environmental Manual this summer for use on upcoming projects, Bruner said.

The guidance will help ensure compliance with requirements for analyzing projects’ potential indirect effects under the National Environmental Policy Act and Montana Environmental Policy Act.

Screening Process Developed

The screening process considers information that is readily available early in the project development process regarding the characteristics and location of the project.

A five-part screening process provides a list of questions for staff to consider. These include:

  • whether the project is exempt, such as highway maintenance and rehabilitation on the same alignment with no increase in capacity;
  • whether the project has an economic development purpose included as part of the purpose and need;
  • whether the project will substantially improve accessibility based on indicators such as travel time to key destinations;
  • whether developable land is available in the areas served by the project;
  • and whether the project region is experiencing population and/or employment growth.

Using this initial screening process, the vast majority of MDT’s projects will not require detailed analysis.

Detailed Analyses

The Desk Reference provides a framework with the following steps for conducting a detailed analysis, where needed:

  • determine study goals and methodology;
  • define study area boundaries and time horizon;
  • assess existing and future no build land use patterns;
  • assess future build condition land use conditions and indirect land use effects;
  • assess the potential for indirect impacts on sensitive resources;
  • develop potential mitigation measures; and
  • document the process and results.

For the actual indirect effects analysis, the guidance recommends a combination of “collaborative judgment,” which determines the “no build” vs. “build” incremental change in land use, and “allocation models,” which determine  the allocation of growth predicted through collaborative judgment to specific sub areas.  “Collaborative judgment incorporates input from other people knowledgeable of the study area (local experts) to inform conclusions about future land use conditions, whether through informal interviews or more formally through a Delphi panel. Allocation models can allow the analyst to distribute a defined amount of indirect land use change at a disaggregate level (such as allocating growth in county to individual municipalities or allocating growth in a city to census tracts or traffic analysis zones,” the summary said.

 Research Informed Development of Guidance

The guidance document was based on the results of research on MDT’s existing practice, including a review of environmental documents developed for projects, interviews of MDT staff, and a survey of resource agency staff.  The research also included a review of relevant case law to determine how courts have interpreted when indirect effects analyses are adequate.

Researchers determined that indirect land use effects assessments in Montana had been conducted in an “ad hoc” manner. While some environmental documents provided well-thought out explanations of the relationship between the project and potential future land development, none of the documents followed a clearly defined assessment process.

Process Offers Needed Consistency

Bruner said the research showed that there was not a large deficiency in the agency’s process for conducting indirect effects analyses. Nevertheless, the new procedures offer needed consistency and structure that has been well received.

MDT has conducted training to ensure that staff and consultants have an efficient process for meeting requirements for indirect effects analyses under NEPA and MEPA. The process will be updated going forward, as needed, and will be coordinated with future updates to the MDT Environmental Manual. Bruner said the process is flexible and could be transferable to other state DOTs, but it would need to be tailored to the unique communities of each state.

According to Leo Tidd, a member of MDT’s consultant team with The Louis Berger Group, the Desk Reference incorporates concepts and best practices that could be adopted by other states. “The basics  of right-sizing the level of analysis to the project issues, documenting the rationale for decisions, avoiding inconsistencies within the environmental document (such as stating the purpose includes economic development, but then failing to analyze the environmental impact of that development) apply everywhere,” Tidd said.

The process used to review the state of the practice at MDT could be applied by other states to assess how they are doing on this issue, he added. In addition, the screening process could easily be adapted for use in other states to improve NEPA document timeliness and defensibility, he said. “The questions themselves are not specific to Montana and deal with drivers of land use change that are universal,” Tidd said.

For more information, including a final research report, summary report, and training presentation, link to Assessing the Extent and Determinates of Induced Growth on the MDT website at http://www.mdt.mt.gov/research/projects/planning/growth.shtml or contact Heidy Bruner at [email protected].