New NDOR-FHWA Accord Key to Cost Savings, Part of Trend to Speed Up Projects

AASHTO Journal, 21 August 2015

Nebraska officials are touting a newly negotiated pact between the state Department of Roads and the Federal Highway Administration as a breakthrough accord that will speed up road and bridge projects and allow the state government to share millions more dollars with local agencies.

Called a “programmatic agreement,” the accord took more than a year of what officials say were intensive talks between the NDOR and the FHWA’s Nebraska division office to clarify what will count as “categorical exclusions” from detailed environmental reviews on federal-aid highway projects.

In particular, the NDOR-FHWA deal clarifies the levels of review needed for “state of good repair projects” such as surface overlays or reconstruction work, and how often state officials need to go back and forth for FHWA approvals. Officials expect it to soon save significant amounts of project time and related costs compared with past requirements.

“We believe that not having to go to and from (FHWA at every step,) less checking in, and having mutually agreed-upon processes will save NDOR much time and human resources, and we will realize a cost savings before long,” NDOR Director Kyle Schneweis said in a statement to AASHTO Journal. “We are just getting started but we are hoping to save months of time.”

With the agreement in hand, transportation officials are training this summer and fall in its details and revising procedures to implement it.

foxxfischer2.jpg U.S. Senator Deb Fischer at podium with Foxx on Nebraska road project site.

They also involved two gubernatorial administrations in Nebraska, as the talks began while Dave Heineman held the governor’s office and were completed under current Gov. Pete Ricketts, who took office in January.

On Aug. 11, Fischer penned an opinion article in the Lincoln Journal Star with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in which they highlighted the importance of the new accord.

While the two called for Congress to complete work on a long-term surface transportation bill, they also said: “At the same time, we must continue to ease the coordination between the U.S. Department of Transportation and states, ensuring projects get up and running at a faster pace.”

They said “a great example” of such collaboration was the yearlong negotiation between the state and federal agencies “to establish best practices for the project approval process.”

The resulting agreement, Fischer and Foxx said, “will allow Nebraska to initiate maintenance and rehabilitation projects more easily along the nearly 100,000 miles of roads and 15,500 bridges that cross the state. Nebraska’s DOR will now have authority over approval for certain aspects of highway project development … Nebraska’s infrastructure projects will move forward with more clarity from the outset, creating more reliable timelines and reducing costly delays.”

schneweis-tall.jpg Schneweis

That same day, Gov. Pete Ricketts and NDOR Director Kyle Schneweis announced that because the NDOR and FHWA had agreed on efficiencies in road projects that reduce preliminary engineering and construction costs, the state would make about $3 million in additional road funding available to cities and counties. “These savings from potentially earlier project delivery will now be passed on to local government,” their announcement said.

Nebraska is far from the only state to pursue such a course with the FHWA. The customized accords are part of a long-running effort at state and federal levels to streamline infrastructure projects to turn them more quickly from the planning stage to actual construction. Congress included some streamlining language in the 2012 MAP-21 highway and transit law, and lawmakers are considering ways to spur more streamlining.

Kate Kurgan, senior program manager for environment at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said many states have negotiated programmatic agreements on various processes with the FHWA.

AASHTO’s Center for Environmental Excellence, she said, maintains a library of 79 PAs from around the country that state departments of transportation have with the FHWA or other federal agencies. The center also offers state DOTs a toolkit to help them craft a new one.

Separately, under the Obama administration’s “Every Day Counts” initiative to speed up transportation projects and deliver their economic boost sooner, the FHWA has also been in favor of more such tailored deals with states.

“Expanding the use of PA agreements can be invaluable in streamlining reviews, reducing project implementation time, and increasing trust” among state DOTs and regulatory agencies, the FHWA says.

Building trust and reducing “friction” between the state and federal agencies was a goal of the Nebraska pact. An NDOR statement explaining the background of the PA says that “neither agency was satisfied with the friction, inconsistency and inefficiency that characterized the prior situation.”

Meanwhile, “Nebraska county and city agencies and consulting engineers likewise were frustrated about slow delivery of federal aid projects.”

But as Ricketts and Schneweis announced the savings they projected and increased funding they planned to share with local agencies, the NDOR chief said: “We are proud of the efficiencies we’ve gained by streamlining our project delivery processes and we are pleased to share those savings with our local government partners.”

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