One of the biggest challenges to environmentally sound Federal-aid transportation project development is related to the amount of time it takes to advance a project through the project development process (i.e., from the planning phase through the environmental review and approval process through final design and then through construction). Planning major transportation projects is extremely complex because of the varying legal, technical, and analytical requirements needed to meet all relevant national and state legal mandates for planning such projects. At the Federal level, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and its accompanying regulations are a means to consider the effects of a wide range of human and natural environmental issues. Meanwhile, laws including Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, Section 4(f) of the DOT Act of 1966 (23 USC Section 138), and the Endangered Species Act, also must be addressed. Each state also has its own set of environmental laws and regulations that apply to transportation projects.
Many factors affect project development, both internal to transportation agencies (e.g., project priorities, staffing, funding, and communication), and external (e.g., public opposition, resource agency staffing, interagency communication, and conflicting review procedures). Major projects can take 10 years or more to advance from the planning phase to completion of construction and 20 years has been a common time frame for some complex, controversial projects.
The concept of “environmental streamlining” arose in 1998 during the congressional reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. Environmental streamlining involves re-engineering the environmental review and approval process portions of the project development process to shorten their time frames while ensuring environmental protection. Environmental streamlining and project delivery provisions were included in subsequent transportation legislation. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) included provisions aimed at coordinating federal agency involvement in major highway projects under the NEPA process. The provisions were intended to address concerns about delays in implementing projects, unnecessary duplication of effort, and added costs often associated with the conventional process for reviewing and approving surface transportation projects.