State DOT CEOs Headline House Hearing on Streamlining Environmental Reviews

AASHTO Journal, 12 September 2014

Three state departments of transportation were among the witnesses before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit this week as the subcommittee examined how MAP-21, the most recent federal transportation bill, had affected the process of quickly moving large transportation infrastructure projects through the federal environmental review process.

In describing the need for the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) said that MAP-21 made significant changes to the traditional project delivery process, but “As the Committee continues its work on drafting the next surface transportation reauthorization bill, we want to consider how the process is working well and what ways it can work better.”

Carlos Braceras, Executive Director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said that Congress should focus on what he described as “cylinders of excellence” among federal resource permitting agencies that work with state and local officials on environmental reviews. Braceras, who serves as chairman of the Center for Environment Excellence by AASHTO, said that federal agencies “are all excellent agencies with good people trying to do the right thing but they are very focused on trying to achieve their mission.”

Braceras said that Congress should look for opportunities to incentivize federal agency cooperation to ensure both environmental protection and project delivery.

“We all want to see outcomes that both benefit the transportation system but benefit the environment and the community.”

Lynn Peterson, Secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation, stressed that she believes NEPA – the National Environmental Policy Act, which governs most federal environmental reviews – is not broken, but rather sets the stage for “complex conversations in a complex environment.”

“There’s no way around having these conversations,” Peterson, who added “NEPA requires a real commitment to real collaboration” that, according to Washington state studies, actually reduces project costs because the conversations lead to more efficient project designs earlier in the project development process.

However, Peterson said that USDOT could use a “One DOT” approach to environmental reviews. She cited a Tacoma-area rail bypass project that had initially received FHWA funds and environmental reviews. When the Federal Railroad Administration contributed funds to the project, an additional environmental impact review was required.

“If you already have a categorical exclusion or approval, that that would move over into yet division of USDOT,” said Peterson.

Carlos Swonke, the Director of the Environmental Affairs Division at the Texas Department of Transportation, said that while MAP-21 made progress toward combining planning and environmental review processes to speed project delivery, it left several conditions that must be met before NEPA can be included in a planning process.

Swonke said that there should be more flexibility in the planning process and the environmental process. He also said that mitigation was an important area that needed review in helping define appropriate levels of mitigation for impacts on water, air and environmental justice.

For more information, including the full hearing video and written testimony, visit the committee web site,

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