Streamlined Environmental Review for Adaptive Rebuilding of Transportation Assets
Sea-level rise, increased precipitation, 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.
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 complying with environmental review requirements:
(1) statutory exclusions,
(2) categorical exclusions, 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 one of the two exclusions must complete an EIS. This can be problematic because EISs require 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.
Stafford Act and emergency relief provisions of the Federal Aid Highway Act,
most emergency relief projects are 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.
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 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. The research would be designed to identify
potential legal and administrative barriers to using PEISs for these purposes,
such as challenges defining the appropriate scope and scale of the PEIS, problems
with document staleness (outdated or changed environmental conditions) if the
information is developed too far in advance of project implementation, and
potential challenges tiering off of a PEIS to implement specific projects.
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 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.
from Nancy H. Sutley, Chair, Council on Envtl. Quality, to the Heads of Fed.
Dep'ts & Agencies, Improving
the Process for Preparing Efficient and Timely Environmental Reviews Under NEPA
(Mar. 6, 2012), available at
Executive Order 13604, Improving
Performance of Federal Permitting and Review of Infrastructure Projects
(Mar. 22, 2012).
Linda Luther, CRS Report for Congress RL34650, Implementing the National Environmental
Policy Act (NEPA) for Disaster Response, Recovery, and Mitigation Projects.
from Nancy H. Sutley, Chair, Council on Envtl. Quality, to the Heads of Fed.
Dep'ts & Agencies, Draft
NEPA Guidance on Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse
Gas Emissions (Feb. 18, 2010).
& Alexander Hood, NEPA, Climate
Change, and Public Lands Decision Making, 42 Envtl. L. 469 (2012).
to FHWA regulations for Categorical Exclusions, 23 C.F.R. Part 771 (Feb. 2013).
Conduct legal and policy analysis and draft 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 can 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.
FHWA is partnering with state DOTs, MPOs, and
Federal Land Management Agencies (FLMAs) to pilot approaches to conduct climate
change and extreme weather vulnerability assessments of transportation
infrastructure and to analyze options for adapting and improving resiliency. Pilot projects could be used to test the PEIS
model and to evaluate the administrative feasibility and cost effectiveness of
using Program EISs and transportation plans to adapt transportation
infrastructure. More details about the
pilot programs can be found at: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/climatechange/adaptation/ongoingandcurrentresearch/vulnerabilityassessmentpilots/index.cfm
|Sponsoring Committee:||A0020T, Special Task Force on Climate Change and Energy
|Research Period:||12 - 24 months|
|RNS Developer:||Jessica Grannis, J.D.|
|Source Info:||The user community includes State DOTs, MPOs, Regional Transit Authorities, the Federal Highway Administration, US Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration and the Council on Environmental Quality.|
|Index Terms:||Infrastructure, Asset management, Environmental policy, Environmental impact statements, Disaster relief, Reconstruction, |
Planning and Forecasting|