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National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and Transportation Construction Projects

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) marked the beginning of the environmental review process for all Federal actions, including the construction of highway and bridge projects falling under the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). NEPA established a mandate for Federal agencies to consider the potential environmental consequences of their proposed actions, document the analysis, and make this information available to the public for comment prior to implementation.

The FHWA has issued regulations to address their responsibilities under NEPA, entitled Environmental Impact and Related Procedures (23 CFR ? 771). FHWA?s compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) allows transportation officials to make project decisions that balance engineering and transportation needs with social, economic, and natural environmental factors. During the process, a wide range of partners including the public, businesses, interest groups, and agencies at all levels of government, provide input into project and environmental decisions.

Transportation projects vary in type, size and complexity, and potential to affect the environment. Transportation project effects can vary from very minor to significant impacts on the human environment. To account for the variability of project impacts, three basic "classes of action" are allowed and determine how compliance with NEPA is carried out and documented:

  • Categorical Exclusions are for actions that do not individually or cumulatively have a significant environmental effect.
  • An Environmental Assessment is prepared for actions in which the significance of the environmental impact is not clearly established.
  • An Environmental Impact Statement is prepared for projects where it is known that the action will have a significant effect on the environment.

Although the size and apparent complexity of the three levels of NEPA documentation is quite different, they all serve the same purpose -- to achieve NEPA's goals of a collaborative decision making process and ultimately to make the public aware of the rationale behind transportation decision.

In September 2002, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13274. Titled "Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Project Reviews," the order directed Federal agencies like the Corps of Engineers and EPA to collaborate more effectively to streamline the environmental review and development of transportation infrastructure projects advance major transportation projects.

An interagency Task Force oversees the implementation of the Executive Order and monitors the environmental reviews of certain high-priority projects. To date, the task force has focused on three major areas for early attention:

  • integration of transportation planning and environment;
  • analysis of indirect and cumulative effects on environmental resources; and
  • development and review of purpose and need statements for transportation projects.

Since January 2005, the environmental reviews for seven priority projects have been completed. These projects include four highway or bridge projects and three airport projects (see the Priority Project Transition List for more details).

Executive orders (EOs) are one of the ways that U.S. presidents provide direction to Federal agencies. Unlike a law or a regulation, EOs do not carry the full force of law. Generally they are not enforceable in court, because they deal with issues of how the executive branch operates internally rather than imposing requirements on citizens, corporations, or non-Federal governments. Nevertheless, Executive orders can be a visible and effective way for presidents to communicate expectations to Federal agencies, especially on subjects that require the cooperation of more than one agency.

More Resources

USDOT/FHWA: NEPA Toolkit. FHWA policy and implementation of responsibilities under NEPA.

USDOT/FHWA National Environmental Streamlining Initiatives. An overview of DOT/FHWA streamlining initiative and presentation of case studies.

Green Highways Partnership (GHP). The GHP is a voluntary, public/private initiative that is revolutionizing our nation's transportation infrastructure. Through concepts such as integrated planning, regulatory flexibility, and market-based rewards, GHP seeks to incorporate environmental streamlinig and stewardship into all aspects of the highway lifecycle.

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