Nationwide Environmental Data to Support Efficient Transportation Decision Making
Environmental Considerations in Planning
Research Idea Scope
TERI Database Administrator Notes: Not recommended at present time by 2009 Environmental Process Subcommittee.
State departments of transportation, as well as regional transportation agencies and organizations, (herein after ‘transportation agencies’) engage in expensive and time-consuming efforts to gather natural resources data to meet requirements related to NEPA, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. In addition under SAFETEA-LU 6001, transportation agencies are asked to use and consider conservation planning information in their transportation planning processes. Transportation and natural resource agencies are struggling to integrate data on natural resources in order to meet these new, and existing, requirements. In 2008, an NCHRP-funded survey of transportation and natural resource agencies on the state of integrated planning across the U.S., found that one of the top challenges to effectively linking conservation and transportation planning was that the appropriate environmental data did not exist, was not available, or was not of the quality and/or format necessary to support decision making. Though SAFETEA-LU and demonstrated ‘best practices’ suggest that an integrated approach to conservation, land use, and transportation planning saves time and produces better outcomes, transportation and natural resource agencies continue to face challenges when attempting to make environmental decisions during project planning stages due to the lack of available data and limited resource agency capacity. Nearly two-thirds of transportation agencies now fund positions at natural resource agencies to increase these agencies’ ability to develop data and respond to transportation related requests. Although the liaison positions partially address the capacity issue, there continues to be a need for more standardized, comprehensive natural resource data in a format that supports effective, consistent and transparent decision making by transportation and natural resource agencies. A nationally standardized and high quality dataset that addresses key natural resource issues would not only inform state-wide and local decision making, but it would also support regional, multi-state assessments of transportation and natural resources. This information would facilitate the type of holistic approach to planning and decision making described in many publications FHWA and state DOTs’ Eco-Logical. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as of March 2009 there were 1,319 species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Under NatureServe’s global conservation status ranking system, over 10,000 U.S. species are considered imperiled (NatureServe Explorer, http://www.natureserve.org/explorer/), and global warming threatens to magnify the threat of extinction for these species. Transportation agencies require significant resources to analyze threats and prevent transportation infrastructure from causing even greater impacts to these species. Making the most relevant natural resource data available to transportation agencies and other partners would substantially reduce the risk of listing for many imperiled species, enable transportation agencies and their partners to effectively target conservation and mitigation resources, allow measurement of progress in ways that can satisfy multiple environmental laws and regulations, and support more efficient transportation planning and project decisions that result in better overall outcomes. This has been demonstrated in Florida where state and federal agencies estimated they more than doubled the quality of the environmental analyses, and those involved are accomplishing these analyses in half the time they spent prior to the availability of high quality, state-wide datasets.
Urgency and Payoff
Gail L. Achterman, Institute for Natural Resources Oregon State University