The seven streamliners

March 18, 2003

The presidential executive order of last Sept. 18 is not the U.S. Department of Transportation's first attempt at environmental streamlining, but it seems to be bearing fruit. Already, the agency has convened the first meeting of the Transportation Infrastructure Streamlining Task Force.

The presidential executive order of last Sept. 18 is not the U.S. Department of Transportation's first attempt at environmental streamlining, but it seems to be bearing fruit. Already, the agency has convened the first meeting of the Transportation Infrastructure Streamlining Task Force.

The stated goal of the order was to "promote environmental stewardship in the nation's transportation system and expedite environmental reviews of high-priority transportation infra-structure projects." The executive order left it up to the DOT to "formulate and implement administrative, policy and procedural mechanisms" for conducting environmental reviews faster than what has traditionally been a painstaking, slow procedure.

But the DOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) have   ideas in mind and hope to develop more through working on a set of pilot projects.

President Bush also said he was committed to complying with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) signed into law in 1970.

The test cases chosen by the DOT to develop more efficient practices include six road projects and one airport project (see sidebar). All the test projects contacted by Roads & Bridges were in the process of writing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in compliance with NEPA.

One idea that is not really new is concurrent review, in which all the agencies involved in a project do their work simultaneously. Concurrent review is not a panacea, though. In a typical scenario, one agency, maybe the DOT or the state environmental department or wildlife service, does an analysis, and then the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the analysis needs to go further or to have more detail.

"Until we deal with that, and either satisfy the information they want or persuade them that they don't need it, we're hung up," Cindy Burbank, associate administrator for environment planning and real estate services at the DOT, told Roads & Bridges.

"We can go back and forth as to how much analysis and detail is needed," said Burbank. "Even though we're trying to do a concurrent review, another agency can say we need more information."

The Chittenden Circumferential Highway in Vermont, for instance, completed an EIS in 1986. The state is now re-evaluating the environmental statement and working out an agreement with the EPA on just how much detail is necessary in the EIS.

The agencies involved in developing NEPA documentation for the Ohio River Bridges have been employing a "review-as-you-write" process, in which each section of the document, whether it has to do with historic preservation, clean water or endangered species, is passed around for review by the other agencies, instead of the typical procedure of waiting for the entire document to be finished.

The major issue with the Ohio River Bridges is historic preservation: "Louisville, in particular, has a significant amount of historic districts and structures scattered throughout Louisville," Janice Osadczuk, chief of the division of environment, planning and engineering for the Indiana DOT, told Roads & Bridges.

"The problem is that you've got such a plethora of rules and regs," said Osadczuk, "and they don't all mesh properly. They weren't written to necessarily mesh precisely. I think this process is a good way to handle it, but it is extraordinarily manpower- and time-intensive, and I wouldn't recommend this for every project."

Taken in context

Another idea that is gaining popularity is context-sensitive design, which provides a greater opportunity for communities and environmental organizations to have their concerns addressed and participate in the design process. It is not clear whether context-sensitive design will actually shorten the time to bring a construction job from proposal to finished design, but it might preempt a lawsuit and thereby shorten the total time to build a road or bridge structure.

For the Stillwater Bridge project across the St. Croix River that forms the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, developing a final environmental impact statement has taken years.

"We have juxtaposed a beautiful natural environment and a historic existing structure that is inadequate from a transportation standpoint," Lynne Judd, administrator of the division of transportation districts at the Wisconsin DOT, told Roads & Bridges. "The major challenge is resolving whether the existing bridge should remain in place or should be removed."

Minnesota, which is the lead state on the project, consulted with the various agencies and developed a draft EIS in 1995, but then the National Park Service raised concerns about the consequences of the construction for the St. Croix River. The Park Service opposed the "proliferation" of bridges on the river that might occur if the old Stillwater bridge were left in place. The Park Service contended that the river should be protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and a court agreed.

"At that point, the agencies went back to the drawing board," said Judd.

In the meantime, Stillwater Bridge is experiencing much greater traffic than the two-lane structure was planned for when it was built in 1931. There are already major traffic backups to cross the bridge, and traffic is expected to increase in the future.

Prefab agreements

Programmatic agreements also are  helping to speed up environmental reviews. The agreements are guidelines between agencies on how to handle certain situations that crop up repeatedly.

"Instead of reinventing the wheel each time, you negotiate up front an understanding with the other agency about how you will handle that type of situation," said Burbank. The agreements can be national in scope, but most are tailored to a region or state.

"There are now scores of programmatic agreements in place that have helped move things forward," added Burbank, "especially for the lower-impact projects."

Burbank commented that the big proj-ects with big hurdles get all the attention, but even small road and bridge projects have environmental issues that could be streamlined. The seven pilot projects will serve as models.

The FHWA is hoping to apply lessons about environmental streamlining to all of its construction projects, even though only 2.4% of them involve an EIS. An additional 6.1% require an Environmental Assessment, which is below the level of an EIS. The remaining 91.5% of the FHWA's proj-ects are below the level of an Environmental Assessment, requiring only a categorical exclusion.

"Categorical exclusions, which are the bulk of the projects, typically take about six months to process," said Burbank. "We're working on reducing the time required even for those projects."

In the balance

Among the other organizations in the country interested in improving the environmental review process is an organization called Enlibra, which is taken from the Latin word meaning "to move toward balance."

"We tend not to use the word 'environmental streamlining.' It tends to indicate a short-circuiting of the environmental process, and that's not what this is about," Paul Yarossi, CEO of the engineering firm HNTB Corp. and chair of the Enlibra board of overseers, told Roads & Bridges.

Enlibra was started in 1997 by Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Republican, and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat. The two set down the first draft of a set of principles that seek a balance between the extremes of prohibiting any use of natural resources and unbridled exploitation of those resources.

Yarossi said Leavitt used the example of two hypothetical bumper stickers, one with a slogan something like, "Earth first. We'll mine the other planets later," and the other bearing the slogan, "Save the Earth. Kill yourself."

"What he's saying is that there has to be something in between the two extremes," said Yarossi.

The group is currently assembling a tool kit of case studies, explanations and other guidance on how the principles can be used in practice.

According to a fact sheet from Enlibra, the past 35 years of environmental protection has  dramatically improved the health of the country's forests, deserts, lakes, streams and air. But the progress has been achieved through "top-down, prescriptive, inflexible mandates," which has turned environmental stewardship into an "endless running battle."

The old-style, top-down decision- making procedure is what the FHWA hopes to counter with context-sensitive design. Burbank called the old approach DAD--design, announce and defend to people who are unhappy. The new approach is to actively seek out participation of the interested parties from the beginning and find a solution. States such as Maryland, Kentucky, Utah, Connecticut and Minnesota have adopted context-sensitive design strategies. The most recent to announce the adoption of context-sensitive design for highway construction is the new governor of Massachusetts.

The FHWA received nominations for 70 other candidate projects for environmental streamlining. The agency is currently reviewing them and, Burbank said, will soon announce a second set of projects that will get priority attention.

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