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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 77 · No. 3 > Protecting the Planet One Road at a Time

November/December 2013
Vol. 77 · No. 3

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-14-001

Protecting the Planet One Road at a Time

by Cathy Kendall, Melissa Toni, and Edward Woolford

Recipients of FHWA's newly established environmental awards offer expert advice gleaned during projects in their division offices in Florida, New York, and Utah.

The leader of the environmental impact statement for Utah's Provo Westside Connector received an FHWA environmental award. This photograph was taken from the southwest corner of the Provo airport looking east toward the city of Provo and the Wasatch Mountain Range. Visible in the foreground is the edge of Utah Lake and the wetlands that surround it.
The leader of the environmental impact statement for Utah's Provo Westside Connector received an FHWA environmental award. This photograph was taken from the southwest corner of the Provo airport looking east toward the city of Provo and the Wasatch Mountain Range. Visible in the foreground is the edge of Utah Lake and the wetlands that surround it.

Transportation projects can disturb or enhance natural and human environments in a number of ways, such as affecting threatened and endangered species, air quality, water and wetland resources, traffic noise, and historic and cultural resources. Before any project can move forward to construction, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), State departments of transportation (DOTs), and other project sponsors must comply with environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), or other environmental permitting requirements through Federal and State regulatory agencies. This environmental review process generally influences the schedule for project development and, if not managed properly, can cause substantial delays.

In January 2012, FHWA established its Annual Environmental Discipline Awards to support and recognize individual and team leadership and excellence in delivery of the transportation environmental program at a local, State, or national level. The 200-plus professionals who make up the FHWA environmental discipline represent a broad spectrum of experts whose efforts now are being acknowledged through the newly established awards.

The primary purpose is to acknowledge and recognize individuals and leaders in the environmental discipline and to cultivate future agency leaders. Candidates for the award are nominated by their peers to recognize achievements in improving collaborative processes across agency disciplines, sharing resources, and strengthening FHWA’s overall capability to deliver its environmental program efficiently and effectively.

In May 2012, FHWA Executive Director Jeffrey F. Paniati announced the first-ever award recipients at the FHWA Planning, Environment, Air Quality, Realty and Civil Rights Conference held in Leesburg, VA. A three-member team of senior environmental professionals led the awards program: Brian Allen, Lamar Smith, and Gerry Solomon. Today, Allen has moved to another FHWA position, and Kevin Rose of Eastern Federal Lands is now the third member.

Another member, Lamar Smith, is the manager of the environment technical service team with the FHWA Resource Center. Smith notes that 2012 was the program’s inaugural year. He adds, “FHWA was pleased to honor five individuals for their exceptional work and long hours in overseeing the NEPA processes on high-priority infrastructure projects.”

Each of the award recipients has a diverse background as well as responsibilities for environmentally based programs and projects with individual challenges and varying complexities. Three of the award winners describe their teams’ projects here and offer their thoughts on exploring efficient and effective methods for improving delivery of FHWA’s environmental program.

Utah: The Provo Westside Connector

For decades, the city of Provo, UT, had identified the Provo Westside Connector as needed to provide a vital link between the community’s airport and the nearby interstate. The connector represented a typical proposal for a new alignment of approximately 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers).

When the environmental process began with a notice in the Federal Register on April 30, 2007, the city expected to reach an acceptable alignment that would satisfy the need for a connector while balancing the environmental concerns of resources agencies. Not long after, however, the environmental process slowed to a crawl as the joint lead agencies--FHWA, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), and the city of Provo--and the Federal cooperating agencies--U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--encountered obstacles over critical elements that stalled progress and impeded collaboration and communication. The result was continual delays that potentially threatened the ability of the local sponsors to obtain permits for the project.

More than 4 years later, on August 31, 2011, President Barack Obama signed a presidential memorandum titled “Speeding Infrastructure Development Through More Efficient and Effective Permitting and Environmental Review.” Under that memorandum, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) selected a number of high-priority transportation projects to expedite, including the Provo Westside Connector.

Selection of Provo provided an opportunity to initiate an aggressive effort to overcome the obstacles that had plagued the project and reach a resolution that would enable the connector to obtain all necessary permits. Through a multiagency effort, the environmental compliance portions came to a successful conclusion 9 months after selection as a high-priority project under the presidential memorandum.

“When first engaged in the Provo Westside Connector project, we encountered significant challenges concerning the project’s purpose and the avoidance and minimizing of impacts to wetlands,” says Michael Jewell, regulatory chief of the Corps of Engineers’ Sacramento District. “In the end, the collective success we had on this project is attributable to a firm schedule, spirited collaboration, an understanding of our respective needs and desired outcomes, and clear communications. FHWA’s leadership was also key to bringing this one across the goal line.”

So how did all of this happen?
The first step was to establish, in coordination with the Office of the Secretary of Transportation and other responsible parties, a plan that outlined milestones and due dates that were agreeable and specific. Next, the team published those milestones on the “Federal Infrastructure Projects Permitting Dashboard,” a Web site designed to track progress on presidential high-priority projects. The site is located at www.permits.performance.gov.

The next step consisted of meetings focused on establishing clear communications and identifying methods to resolve the obstacles. One of the primary challenges identified through this collaborative process was the use of the term “system linkage” in the project’s purpose and need statement. The definition of system linkage could have eliminated viable alternatives from the draft environmental impact statement, based on failure to meet purpose and need.

The joint lead agencies determined that the best method to resolve this obstacle was to identify where clarification would assist the Clean Water Act permitting process. To accomplish this goal, FHWA prepared a white paper, “Center Street Summary,” clarifying the project’s purpose and need, and the reasons why one alternative--the Center Street Concept--failed to meet purpose and need.

The white paper defined system linkage for the purposes of this project as “an attribute of a transportation network that facilitates the mobility of users of the network, allowing linkages among the routes in the network in an efficient and predictable manner based on travel speed, degree of controlled access, and setting (residential or not).”

The white paper went on to explain that the need for system linkage arose from planned improvements to the Provo Airport. By making the airport an attractive destination for plane travelers, the improvements would increase future highway traffic volumes. Further, planned residential and commercial development in southwest Provo would create needs for improved linkages beyond those planned for Center Street. A high-speed, high-volume roadway was the local transportation system’s missing link.

Why does all of this matter?
The environmental process for the connector was heading in a direction that might have threatened the community’s ability to obtain the project’s necessary permits. The community would have been unable to make improvements to the local transportation network, while still paying for the initial cost of the NEPA analysis.

Had the connector turned out to be just like any local roadway, that outcome might have been the end result. Instead, the multiagency team of professionals was able to build a coalition that was results driven and focused on gaining insight into the needs and desires of the respective agencies. For those who find themselves in a similar situation, the lesson learned is to take a step back, establish timeframes, discuss the issues, understand the needs and desires of each entity, build trust and collaboration, and finally document the successes.

“The challenges we faced on the project brought home the importance of early collaboration among all agencies with decisionmaking and review authorities, project sponsors, and stakeholders in improving outcomes and minimizing delays,” says Martin Hestmark, assistant regional administrator, Office of Ecosystems Protection and Remediation, EPA Region 8.

This map shows the 1860 South Alternative (in red), the route selected in the final environmental impact statement to connect the Provo Airport to the west with the city of Provo to the east. I–15 is visible along the urban fringe of Provo
City to the north and east.
This map shows the 1860 South Alternative (in red), the route selected in the final environmental impact statement to connect the Provo Airport to the west with the city of Provo to the east. I–15 is visible along the urban fringe of Provo City to the north and east.

Florida, Puerto Rico: When Circumstances Exceed Procedures

For those preparing an environmental document, the first critical step is locating written procedures that provide useful guidance. The same is true for those conducting consultations or public involvement activities, or reviewing and providing input on an analysis produced by others. Carrying out these activities in conformance with written, established procedures provides greater consistency for anyone who is reviewing a project.

With written procedures, DOT staff can become familiar and comfortable with the State’s established protocols and formats before starting a project. Established procedures are particularly helpful for any agency that experiences staff turnover. New personnel can consult the procedures to determine the proper formatting or protocol, or the way that a particular issue is expected to be addressed.

Unfortunately, having procedures that cover every scenario is virtually impossible. For one thing, as new laws and guidance are enacted, established procedures often will not be updated fast enough to reflect such changes. When this occurs, lead agencies must reach out to their partners to determine how potential issues will be addressed if they arise.

In Florida and Puerto Rico, various transportation projects have provided a number of lessons learned about situations in which established procedures for addressing environmental concerns do not fully cover the circumstances of a particular case. In the past 8 years, for example, the large number of Florida environmental impact statements that involved corridor studies prior to or early in the NEPA process did not have the benefit of the April 5, 2011 FHWA Guidance, “Using Corridor and Subarea Planning to Inform NEPA,” and some, not even the addition to 23 CFR 450 of “Appendix A to Part 450--Linking the Transportation Planning and NEPA Processes.”

Nonetheless, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), FHWA, local project sponsors, and the resource agencies worked together in a project-by-project approach to identify needed review procedures and decisions for the corridor studies. It was FDOT’s and FHWA’s intention that these decisions later could be relied upon in the NEPA process for projects that had multiple alternatives, such as the Gulf Coast Parkway in west Florida.

FDOT has since developed written procedures called the “Alternative Corridor Evaluation (ACE)” process to establish a consistent approach to the review of corridor studies. Newly initiated projects in Florida that have multiple corridors to consider, such as the Poinciana Parkway south of Orlando, now have a standard ACE process to follow. The ACE procedures also are incorporated into FDOT’s Project Development and Environment Manual (PD&E Manual). The manual is accessible at www.dot.state.fl.us/emo/pubs/pdeman/pdeman1.shtm.

An important component of addressing new issues that are not covered by existing procedures is to work closely with agency partners and resource experts to develop a strategy that can be replicated in similar situations. In 2011, FHWA bridge inspections on the island of Puerto Rico, for instance, determined critical findings of a structural or safety-related deficiency for 77 bridges that require immediate followup inspection or action. To address these deficiencies, the Puerto Rico Highways & Transportation Authority (PRHTA) is working closely with the Corps of Engineers to reestablish general permits for low-impact projects.

In addition, the PRHTA is working with the Puerto Rico State Historic Preservation Office to formalize the assessment process for historic resources. To date, FHWA has informally delegated that process to the PRHTA. The establishment of formalized procedures for general permits and assessments of cultural resources will improve the definition of roles, responsibilities, and expectations so that projects for critical bridge rehabilitations and replacements that have low impacts can be managed efficiently.

Some of the repairs of critical-finding bridges that require immediate action, however, such as the Mata de Plátano Bridge in the municipality of Ciales, are proceeding in advance of these general-permit and process agreements. As a result, face-to-face meetings with the agencies to convey the urgency of the situation and to obtain feedback from the agencies regarding their areas of concern and coordination expectations have been a critical component in project implementation.

Located in the municipality of Ciales in Puerto Rico, the Mata de Plátano Bridge was built in 1905. FHWA worked closely with the government of Puerto Rico and the municipality of Ciales to rehabilitate the bridge.
Located in the municipality of Ciales in Puerto Rico, the Mata de Plátano Bridge was built in 1905. FHWA worked closely with the government of Puerto Rico and the municipality of Ciales to rehabilitate the bridge.

Use of a resource task team is another effective tool in addressing new issues as they arise. Florida’s Noise Task Team is an example of how a State DOT can bring technical experts together on a regular basis to consider emerging issues in a specific area. The noise team analyzes highway noise and possible methods for abatement, and provides feedback for State policy that is in the draft stage.

In addition to members from the FDOT highway traffic noise staff, Florida’s Noise Task Team includes environmental staff from FHWA’s Florida Division and highway traffic noise consultants. The team meets at least annually and electronically provides input on new procedures as they are proposed. The team’s input was critical, for example, in developing FDOT’s noise abatement policy to implement FHWA’s 2010 noise regulation, Procedures for Abatement of Highway Traffic Noise and Construction Noise.

“Established procedures are an important part of a successful program for the development, review, and approval of environmental documents,” says Mariano Berrios, environmental programs coordinator with FDOT. “What is also important, however, is to have methods to address new situations that are not in the established procedures.”

Working closely with agency partners and resource experts through technical task teams or interagency project teams is a useful technique to help bridge the gap until new procedures can be established.

New York: Tappan Zee Hudson River Crossing Project

USDOT selected the Tappan Zee Hudson River Crossing Project, an infrastructure replacement, as a high-priority project under the presidential “Speeding Infrastructure” memorandum for several reasons. Among them were the immediate need to resolve infrastructure issues, such as structural deficiencies, safety concerns, the need for mobility increases, and security issues with the current bridge. Another reason for selection was the economic benefits that would result from creating an estimated 38,000 construction jobs.

Also, the several years of study and production of background materials already completed for the Tappan Zee project would help with preparation of the environmental documentation required by the selection of a project as high priority. Projects selected as high priority needed to have all significant environmental metrics met within 18 months, with preference given to projects that could have the approvals within 12 months. Because background materials for the Tappan Zee project previously existed and the environmental impact statement was already under development, the project team believed that a record of decision could be signed within 12 months.

The purpose of the Tappan Zee replacement is to maintain a vital link in the regional and national transportation network by providing an improved Hudson River crossing in New York State between Rockland and Westchester Counties. The existing bridge provides the only interstate highway crossing of the Hudson River for a 48-mile (77-kilometer) stretch between the George Washington Bridge in New York City (I–95) and the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge (I–84).

In addition to serving as a critical link between the population and employment centers of Rockland and Westchester Counties, the Tappan Zee crossing is a major route for freight movement between points east and west of the Hudson River. It is a primary overland gateway to New England for goods delivered to the Port of New York and New Jersey. The bridge is also a bypass route around New York City for trucks traveling between New England and points south and west of the city.

The existing bridge was built in 1955 and now serves approximately 138,000 vehicles per day. Although safe to the traveling public, the bridge does not meet current standards for design or traffic operations. The proposed replacement will improve the bridge’s structural, operational, mobility, safety, and security features.

The New York State Thruway Authority, FHWA, and New York State Department of Transportation selected replacement of the structure as the project’s preferred alternative. The replacement consists of two new bridge structures that will cross the Hudson River north of the existing Tappan Zee Bridge. They will meet the New York State Thruway Authority’s existing rights-of-way in South Nyack and Tarrytown.

The Tappan Zee’s listing on the “Federal Infrastructure Projects Permitting Dashboard” site indicates that 61 actions from other Federal agencies were required before construction could start, which was anticipated to happen 12 to 18 months from the date of selection as a high-priority project.

The complexities with a schedule this aggressive included initiation and completion of the NEPA process in just 12 months. Other complications included the fact that the bridge replacement was progressed as a design-build project without an identified design, the team needed to include potential permit conditions in the environmental impact statement to achieve the most accurate cost, and public controversy was substantial because of significant impacts on natural resources that were evaluated in the environmental impact statement.

The design of the new main span crossing the Hudson River is depicted in this rendering.
The design of the new main span crossing the Hudson River is depicted in this rendering.

The project team developed several tools to manage the schedule, help to develop the best possible environmental documentation, and foster a reliable and trustworthy communications network among 10 Federal and State cooperating agencies. The tools included development of a cooperating agreement in which each agency identified responsible points of contact and empowered those individuals to make decisions that their agencies then would support. Another was holding a high-level agency summit during which leaders were introduced to the project, and roles and expectations were explained. Still other tools included circulating a predraft environmental impact statement to each agency for comments prior to publication, and holding monthly status calls with the agencies.

The most beneficial tool employed by the project team was hosting and facilitating an energetic design-build workshop of the 10 NEPA-cooperating agencies. Collectively, over a period of 2 days, the agencies developed environmental commitments for the project. Issues were vetted through each agency, and agreement was reached on the parameters of the bridge design. Being able to write the parameters into the environmental document and the request for proposals ensured that bidders factored the design parameters into the final cost submitted in their proposals.

The major impacts evaluated in the environmental impact statement included navigation of the Hudson River, removal and disposal of materials from the riverbed, impacts on protected fish species, and the historic nature of the bridge, among others. Because of these multiple economic, environmental, and historic interests, plus the significance of the project to the region and its selection as a priority project, significant coordination and communications efforts were required to achieve a desired schedule.

From an environmental perspective, the major concern was the need for formal consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for an incidental take of the federally endangered Atlantic and shortnose sturgeons. A “take” is harming or harassing a listed species, and an “incidental take” results from a Federal action but is not the purpose of the action and may be allowed when the agency approves it through an incidental take statement.

The science, project design, and process related to the Tappan Zee consultation were unfamiliar to the agencies involved. Excellent relationships with NMFS and dedication by their staff were imperative to the deadlines being met on time.

The typical NEPA process timeframe for FHWA projects is 5 to 7 years. To complete the NEPA process instead in just 12 months thus represented an aggressive schedule and a monumental undertaking for the project team. The team consisted of experts from several agencies, legal firms, and consulting companies. To add compliance with environmental permitting to the schedule increased the complexity, but the “Speeding Infrastructure” presidential memorandum and the high-priority designation gave the project team the tools necessary to meet the timeframe metrics.

In this photo showing construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge, the first 6-foot (1.8-meter) test pile is being installed through a combination of vibratory hammers and hydraulic pile driving. To minimize the acoustic impacts on fish, the
contractor is using vibratory means as much as possible.
In this photo showing construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge, the first 6-foot (1.8-meter) test pile is being installed through a combination of vibratory hammers and hydraulic pile driving. To minimize the acoustic impacts on fish, the contractor is using vibratory means as much as possible.

Utah: UPlan Helps Link Planning and Environment

In Utah, a geospatial tool referred to as UDOT’s Planning Network (UPlan) is making headway, thanks to John Thomas, UDOT’s director of planning, and with support from UDOT’s leadership. Although UPlan was not part of the award, it was mentioned in the initial nomination and showcases additional environmental work by UDOT.

Realizing that UDOT’s environmental team members had considerable information at their fingertips, Thomas began UPlan as a tool to improve utilization of the existing geospatial data. Over time, UDOT cultivated a successful working relationship with Esri, a company that develops geographic information systems (GIS). Thomas, together with Frank Pisani, UPlan’s GIS lead, expanded UPlan to create a one-stop shop for sharing information geospatially. The tool supports UDOT’s mission by helping to visualize data, track assets, and strengthen the transportation planning process through improved analysis and collaborative information.

UPlan enables users to create and share raster and vector datasets. Raster datasets are pixel-based images, a single point representing the smallest single component in a display. Vector datasets are mathematical calculations from one point to another to form geometric shapes. UPlan utilizes a cloud-based platform of geospatial data from other transportation stakeholders, including Federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In Utah, the FHWA Division Office currently uses UPlan data as a tool for guiding NEPA class action decisions on proposed projects. As part of the FHWA Every Day Counts initiative for geospatial data collaboration, UDOT and FHWA are working on improving system capabilities so that UPlan can generate categorical-exclusion documentation directly from the system.

In 2012, the Technology Implementation Group under the American Association of State High-way and Transportation Officials recognized UPlan as a focus technology and currently is conducting a 2-year technology transfer for 12 States to develop additional statewide mapping systems. Public access to UPlan is available at http://uplan.maps.arcgis.com/home.

“As we look ahead with UPlan, we are hoping it will make us a more efficient DOT because it is going to put meaningful data in the hands of good people to make more informed decisions around asset management and project synchronization,” says Frank Pisani, UDOT GIS manager.

Final Thoughts

The projects and programs described above are examples of accomplishments by environmental professionals contributing to implementing the Federal-aid program with shorter delivery times, decreased costs, and maintenance of integrity with regulatory agencies. In each of the examples, protection of the environment was of the utmost importance. Meeting, and in some cases exceeding, the requirements of environmental laws and regulations, yet also delivering a more predictable program in a shorter time, can be accomplished through continuous cooperation from professionals in the environmental discipline.

Gerry Solomon, director of the FHWA Office of Project Development and Environmental Review, says, “The environmental discipline is about its members working collaboratively with each other and with other disciplines, sharing resources, breaking down silos, and strengthening abilities. It is dedicated to professional development and ensuring all members have the tools needed to deliver the agency’s environmental program effectively. The Environmental Discipline Award Program is intended to strengthen the discipline technically, improve the teamwork and morale of employees, acknowledge existing leaders in the discipline, and cultivate the pool of future leaders.”


Cathy Kendall, AICP, is an environmental specialist with FHWA’s Florida and Puerto Rico Division Offices. She has worked in land use planning and transportation development at the Federal, State, and local levels. Kendall has a bachelor’s in economics and a master’s in planning from Florida State University. She received one of the Annual Environmental Discipline Awards for demonstrating exceptional leadership in overseeing the agency’s environmental program in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Melissa Toni is the environmental program coordinator in FHWA’s New York Division Office. Her role as environmental lead for the Tappan Zee Bridge Hudson River Crossing project was critical to the project’s advancement on an expedited timeframe. Toni was honored under the Annual Environmental Discipline Awards for her leadership through coordination with numerous Federal and State resource agencies in her work with the environmental impact statement for the $3.9 billion high-priority project. Her education includes a bachelor’s in natural resources management and engineering from the University of Connecticut.

Edward Woolford is the environmental program manager in FHWA’s Utah Division Office. He was recognized under the Annual Environmental Discipline Awards for leading the Provo Westside Connector environmental impact statement to a successful conclusion. Woolford’s leadership in coordinating among numerous Federal, State, and local agencies helped resolve a number of key issues that were delaying the project. His education includes a bachelor’s in environmental studies and geography from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN.

For more information, contact Cathy Kendall at 850–553–2225 or cathy.kendall@dot.gov, or Melissa Toni at 518–431–4125, ext. 227, or melissa.toni@dot.gov, or Edward Woolford at 801–955–3524 or edward.woolford@dot.gov. Two others received Annual Environmental Discipline Awards: Damaris Santiago, then with the Massachusetts Division Office, and Katy Allen in the Georgia Division Office.

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