The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) is successfully integrating input from minority and low-income populations (environmental justice [EJ] populations) and consistently documenting its EJ analyses and findings through use of planning- and project-level guidance developed by the agency.
Executive Order 12898 (1994), Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, directs federal actions to avoid, minimize, or mitigate disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects, including socioeconomic, on EJ populations. However, Executive Order 12898 did not provide guidance on how to identify EJ populations, or how to determine if impacts are disproportionately high and adverse.
EJ Guidance at PennDOT
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s (PennDOT) approach to implementing Executive Order 12898 (1994)—as well as subsequent Memorandum of Understanding on EJ signed by heads of federal agencies (2011) and DOT’s Final EJ Order 5610.2(a) (2012)—uses guidance documents that are distributed to districts for implementation. In addition to guidance it developed for regional planning-level EJ analyses, PennDOT, also has developed project-level guidance to promote consistency in EJ analyses conducted for relatively minor-impact projects across the state.
Two notable factors influencing PennDOT’s EJ approach include: 1) the agency is decentralized, with projects held at the district-level, and 2) around 99 percent of current PennDOT projects are Categorical Exclusions (CEs) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Initially, PennDOT developed an EJ guidance for statewide planning and programming processes, Every Voice Counts (2004, updated 2012). PennDOT drew from best practices and existing resources proven to work in practice to develop its EJ guidance. Every Voice Counts describes PennDOT’s regional planning-level EJ responsibilities as: 1) identifying EJ population presence within planning areas; 2) engaging EJ populations in public involvement and subsequent documentation of that engagement; 3) assessing the effects of transportation policies, investments, and programs on EJ populations; and 4) avoiding, minimizing, or mitigating, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse effects.
According to PennDOT’s Transportation Planning Manager Brian Wall, despite the initial Every Voice Counts guidance there were dramatic differences in how EJ efforts were being conducted and documented throughout the state due to the agency’s decentralized operational structure and the number of metropolitan and rural planning organizations and the various staffing levels at those organizations. Therefore, in 2012, as a result of a strengths/weaknesses assessment, PennDOT expanded its EJ guidance and provided clear examples of how to conduct an EJ analysis at the planning level.
After implementing its planning-level EJ guidance for nearly a decade, PennDOT developed its Project Level Environmental Justice Guidance in 2013. The guidance provides a step-by-step EJ analysis framework to ensure requirements of Executive Order 12898 are appropriately identified, considered, and documented at the project level. Because PennDOT is decentralized, the project-level guidance provides consistency across DOT districts in their approach to EJ analyses.
Additionally, with nearly all PennDOT projects falling under CEs with minimal impacts, PennDOT Environmental Planning Manager Drew Ames said that it can be tough to document EJ efforts. The project-level guidance addresses the issue of determining the presence of EJ populations, appropriate level of documentation, and determining disproportionate adverse impacts. The guidance explains what needs to be done after a project is on the Transportation Improvement Program and preliminary engineering begins, and includes criteria that would qualify a project as exempt from a detailed EJ analysis.
PennDOT provides and documents consideration of potential impacts to EJ populations for categorically excluded projects in the on-line Categorical Exclusion Expert System. For CEs falling under 23 CFR 771.117(d), that are not otherwise covered by a programmatic agreement, the system prompts preparers to answer a series of questions regarding EJ that are based on the analysis described in the guidance document.
In addition, the project-level guidance includes several real-world case studies that describe how project teams reached out to and engaged EJ populations, what data were gathered and analyzed to determine if EJ populations are located in the study area, and what project impacts and benefits were evaluated to determine if the project caused disproportionate and adverse impacts to EJ populations. Moreover, the case studies include helpful “lessons learned” so that other EJ analyses are informed by past experiences. Examples of lessons cited in the guidance include the following:
- While review of demographic data helps to identify the presence of EJ populations, field views and discussions with local stakeholders can provide valuable insights that cannot be drawn from review of demographic data alone.
- Enlisting EJ community representatives on community advisory committees can help gain the EJ community’s trust and support for a project.
- The study area size and shape may require information to be collected from a variety of census data geographies, and may impact the level of effort and resources needed for data collection.
- Project teams should always check their assumptions about adverse impacts by discussing impacts with EJ populations. What might be considered an adverse impact by project engineers and planners may or may not be interpreted as adverse by the community.
PennDOT has realized the following key points and lessons learned in implementing the agency’s planning- and project-level EJ guidance:
- Documentation: Regardless of a project’s size, it is important to state clearly what types of information or data were considered to identify the presence of EJ populations (e.g. Census data), how EJ populations were engaged in project scoping and the development of project alternatives and any mitigation measures, and how project design may have changed as a result of input from EJ populations.
- Balance: An EJ analysis is never a “one size fits all” analysis. It is location, community and context-driven, based on the project’s direct, indirect and cumulative impacts and how those impacts are experienced by EJ populations, both positively and negatively.
- Process efficiencies: Providing a unified guidance for application across jurisdictions helps streamline the state’s EJ analyses and documentation. For example, the process outlined in Every Voice Counts has led to better “benefits and burdens” analysis in long range transportation planning, particularly through the use of GIS.
- Consolidation: The guidance is intended to consolidate the wealth of information into a document that is easy to access and use for replication across the state—and for other state DOTs.
- Context: Familiarity with a project area and its residents is irreplaceable. Taking the extra step—such as proactively speaking directly with a community—creates opportunity for more meaningful engagement, a better informed EJ analysis and proactive issue resolution promoting a more collaborative decision-making process.
Overall, PennDOT’s implementation of both its planning-level and project-level EJ guidance documents has enhanced the agency’s ability to integrate meaningful input from EJ populations into its plans, programs, and projects, and has allowed the agency to consistently document its EJ analyses and findings.
For more information on PennDOT’s planning-level EJ guidance, contact Planning-Level EJ Guidance Brian Wall, PennDOT Transportation Planning Manager at [email protected]. For information on the project-level guidance, contact Drew Ames, PennDOT Environmental Planning Manager, at [email protected].