Streamlined Environmental Review for Adaptive Rebuilding of Transportation Assets

Focus Area

NEPA Process


Environmental Process




Under $99k


Under 1 year

Research Idea Scope

Sea-level rise, increased precipitation events, and
increased storm severity resulting from a changing climate will increase the
vulnerability of transportation assets to flooding and other physical
stressors.  Recent extreme weather events
from Hurricane Katrina to Superstorm Sandy have demonstrated the vulnerability
of our transportation system to impacts. 
These losses come at a time when transportation agencies are already
faced with having to maintain aging infrastructure in an era of declining
transportation funding.  Climate
adaptation presents an opportunity to increase transportation resilience and
protect critical infrastructure. 
Adapting a transportation facility could include relocating the facility
inland, elevating or retrofitting the facility, or protecting the facility with
a sea wall or other engineered structures. 
Because of fiscal constraints, the perfect time to implement these types
of adaptations is when using disaster relief money to rebuild or restore a
facility after it has been damaged. 
However, the environmental review requirements triggered by the National
Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) present time and money constraints that may
discourage state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and Metropolitan Planning
Organizations (MPOs) (collectively “transportation agencies”) from implementing
adaptation measures.


All major federal actions, including any project funded
through disaster relief statutes, must comply with NEPA. NEPA directs federal
agencies to thoroughly assess the environmental consequences of “major
federal actions significantly affecting the environment.”  NEPA provides three main pathways for
environmental review:  (1) statutorily
excluded activities, (2) categorically excluded actions, and (3) Environmental
Impact Statements (EIS).  Actions that do
not significantly affect the quality of the human environment may be
statutorily or categorically excluded from NEPA review.  All other actions that do not fit into the
first two categories must complete an EIS, which requires lengthy and sometimes
expensive analysis and processes such as the identification and evaluation of
alternatives, disclosure of environmental impacts, and public scoping and
comment periods.


Under the Stafford Act and emergency relief provisions of
the Federal Aid Highway Act, most emergency relief projects are statutorily or
categorically excluded from environmental review requirements and can proceed
with little time and expense. These exclusions, however, are limited to
assistance that has the effect of restoring a transportation facility to its
pre-disaster condition in its pre-disaster footprint. Adaptive measures often
do not qualify for one of the streamlined exclusions because such measures
often result in alterations in the size, capacity, or location of the
facility.  Thus, adapting facilities will
most often require the completion of full-blown EIS. When pressed with the need
to repair and rebuild critical transportation infrastructure quickly after a
disaster, the additional time and expense associated with environmental review
may discourage transportation agencies from adapting a facility.


NEPA, however, may provide opportunities for agencies to
proactively leverage environmental review in a way that will allow them to
channel disaster relief funding and allow for adaptation during the rebuilding
process.  Agencies could consider
developing Program Environmental Impact Statements (PEIS) as part of
transportation plans to analyze adaptation alternatives.  PEISs are regionally focused documents that
assess the environmental impacts of broad sets of policies, programs and
alternatives. Through a PEIS, agencies can assess the vulnerability of their
transportation system to climate impacts, identify a range of adaptation
alternatives for particular assets (such as relocating, elevating, or
protecting assets), and begin the process of evaluating the environmental
impacts of different alternatives.  Then
if a disaster strikes and disaster relief funding becomes available,
transportation agencies could then “tier” off of a previously prepared PEIS
truncating the environmental review process required to implement selected
project alternatives.  By conducting the
environmental analysis during a pre-disaster planning phase, communities will
be in a better position to quickly direct disaster relief funding.


The objectives of this research would be to help
transportation agencies identify opportunities for streamlining the NEPA
process after natural disasters.  PEIS
could serve as a mechanism to eliminate redundancy and inefficiency in the
environmental review process, and encourage use of the NEPA process as a method
of identifying a range of alternatives to adapt vulnerable transportation assets.  This approach would also ensure that
environmental review is not circumvented due to exigencies posed by disaster
recovery.  Instead, by using PEISs
agencies can work within existing NEPA frameworks in a way that fully explores
environmental impacts but front loads the review so that environmental review
does not delay post-disaster recovery.




The purpose of this research would be to analyze whether
PEISs can be used as an effective tool to streamline and front load the
environmental review process so that communities are better positioned to
implement adaptive measures when rebuilding after a disaster.  Project tasks would include legal and policy
analysis of NEPA requirements.  Project
deliverables would include a report analyzing whether PEISs can be used to
satisfy NEPA requirements to allow for expedited adaptive rebuilding after a
disaster and guidance on how DOTS an use PEISs as a tool for promoting
adaptation.  Issues analyzed will
include: (1) staleness (the risk of changed environmental conditions because of
long lapses in time); (2) segmentation (dividing projects into smaller,
discrete actions to avoid disclosing significant impacts); and, (3)
pre-selection of alternatives (premature selection and commitment to a proposed
action to avoid consideration of environmental effects and public input into
the decision making process). In analyzing the questions we would consult with
transportation and disaster relief experts from state and federal agencies,
metropolitan planning organizations, and the Council on Environmental Quality.

Urgency and Payoff

The results of this project will allow transportation
planners to better allocate disaster relief funds to the assets most vulnerable
to the effects of climate change, increasing the long-term sustainability of
public investments.  By coupling the
environmental review process with long-term vulnerability assessments of
priority assets before a disaster, transportation planners will be armed with a
plan for implementing adaptation measures during the rebuilding process. This
will ease the administrative and time burdens typically imposed during the
environmental review process, as transportation planners can “tier” off of the
previously prepared PEIS with smaller, more streamlined environmental
assessments.  By using the NEPA process
to develop long-term adaptation alternatives, communities will be in a better
position to direct emergency relief funding toward rebuilding assets that are
resilient to the effects of climate change, resulting in long-term
cost-effective use of disaster relief funds.


We anticipate that user community will include State
Transportation Officers, DOTs, MPOs, Regional Transit Authorities, the Federal
Highway Administration, US Department of Transportation, Federal Transit
Authority and the Council on Environmental Quality.

Suggested By

Brant Arthur on behalf of Jessica Grannis (Georgetown University Law Center) TRB Special Task Force on Climate Change and Energy 7074779946

[email protected]