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FHWA Home / OIPD / Accelerating Innovation / Every Day Counts / PEL Questionnaire Equivalents for Tennessee

PEL Questionnaire Equivalents for Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT)

Equivalent Approach: Tennessee Environmental Streamlining Agreement

Determination of PEL Questionnaire Equivalent

Beginning in 2004, TDOT began working closely with resource and regulatory agencies to develop a coordinated approach to streamline the planning and environmental phases of the transportation project development process. This coordinated approach is documented in the Tennessee Environmental Streamlining Agreement (TESA) which was formally adopted by TDOT and multiple agencies in 2008. The following outlines the key components of the TESA process and how it satisfies the PEL Questionnaire equivalency criteria.

Tennessee Environmental Streamlining Agreement

In an effort to establish a coordinated planning and project development process for transportation projects in Tennessee, TDOT developed the Tennessee Environmental Streamlining Agreement (TESA) for the Environmental and Regulatory Coordination of Transportation Projects. The goal of the TESA process is to ensure significant resource/regulatory agency, Metropolitan Planning Organization, and other stakeholder participation and involvement early and throughout the transportation project development process.

This streamlined environmental process is intended to achieve the timely and efficient identification, evaluation, and resolution of environmental and regulatory issues. TESA establishes one decision-making process for identifying and addressing agency issues at four key points (concurrence points) during the planning and NEPA process. Concurrence Points are “checkpoints” within the project development process where TDOT requests formal concurrence and the participating agencies provide concurrence or non-concurrence, before the project proceeds to the next step. The four TESA concurrence points are:

  1. Purpose and Need and Study Area;
  2. Project Alternatives to be Evaluated in the Environmental Document;
  3. Preliminary Draft Environmental Document; and
  4. Preferred Alternative and Preliminary Mitigation.

The TESA process was conceived to identify issues early in the project development process, where the greatest flexibility for addressing the concerns exists, thus ensuring that basic issues surrounding purpose and need, the study area, and the range of alternatives can be resolved prior to the development and review of an environmental document.

As outlined in the TESA document1, the purpose of the process is to:

  • Improve cooperation, consultation, and efficiency of governmental agencies involved in the environmental and regulatory processes of major transportation projects,
  • Allow documentation developed by FHWA and TDOT, in compliance with NEPA, to serve as a substantial part of the documentation required by other permitting and funding agencies in accordance with applicable laws and regulations,
  • Streamline the NEPA process as it relates to other environmental legislation, such as, but not limited to, the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Department of Transportation Act,
  • To the greatest degree practicable and consistent with applicable statutes and regulations, coordinate the process for compliance with NEPA requirements and compliance with Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, Section 401/State water quality certification, and the Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit (ARAP) requirements,
  • Link the information generated from the transportation planning process to the NEPA process,
  • Implement the environmental stewardship and environmental review process improvements established for highways, transit and multimodal projects of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU),
  • Serve as the documented process for accomplishing the project development coordination functions and public involvement functions called for under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, and
  • To the greatest degree practicable and consistent with applicable statutes, regulations and guidance, coordinate the process for compliance with requirements of the Clean Air Act, including transportation conformity and interagency consultation as specified in Tennessee's Conformity State Implementation Plan and 40 CFR Part 93.

The TESA process meets all of the required criteria and all but one (3c. Description and/or analysis of potential cumulative effects) of the recommended criteria for determining PEL questionnaire equivalents (See Figure 1). The following sections describe the TESA process and how it aligns with the FHWA criteria.

Criteria 1

Beginning in 2004, TDOT and the FHWA Tennessee Division Office conducted a series of workshops to discuss opportunities to strengthen interagency coordination and integrate resource and regulatory agencies, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), and other stakeholders into the transportation development process. The workshops, which were attended by representatives of TDOT, agencies, the MPOs, and other stakeholders provided a forum for exploring opportunities for improved coordination and resulted in the development of the TESA process. The TESA process has been incorporated into TDOT's Environmental Procedures Manual2 and is currently being incorporated into the Department's new Statewide Environmental Management System.

Equivalence Criteria Met
  1. Institutionalized Process
  2. Required:
    1. The early and continuous coordination with regulatory and resource agencies
    2. Public and stakeholder coordination
    3. Description of planning scope and vision statement
    4. Alternatives that were considered, selected, and rejected
    5. Explanation of planning assumptions
  3. Recommended:
    1. Analysis of the affected environment and environmental consequences
    2. Potential strategies for broad-scale mitigation
    3. Description and/or analysis of potential cumulative effects
    4. A method of documenting FHWA approval

Figure 1: Summary of the FHWA Equivalence Criteria met by the TESA process.

The following agencies are signatories to the TESA agreement:

  • Tennessee Department of Transportation
  • Federal Highway Administration
  • Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation
  • US Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District
  • US Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • US Environmental Protection Agency, Region 4
  • Tennessee Valley Authority
  • Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
  • USDA Forest Service (Cherokee National Forest)

The following agency is a conditional signatory to the TESA agreement:

  • Tennessee State Historic Preservation Office

TDOT has signed individual agreements with several agencies to outline specific review and coordination procedures tailored to the needs of the agency, as well as financial support for staffing, travel, and/or training to ensure priority review of transportation projects and consistent interagency coordination. In addition to the above listed agencies, other agencies, local governments, and project-specific stakeholders are invited to participate in the TESA process.

Criteria 2

The TESA process guides a project from the planning stages through NEPA approval. The process provides resource and regulatory agencies, state and local agencies, local officials, the public, and other stakeholders the opportunity to provide early input and feedback regarding the scope of the project and its potential impacts through documents, meetings, and other outreach activities that are undertaken throughout the concurrence process. The information shared and collected throughout the TESA process satisfies required equivalence criteria 2a through 2e and optional criteria 3a, 3b, and 3d. The concurrence process is more fully described below.

As part of an initial step of the TESA process, Federal, State, and local agencies are invited to be a Participating Agency, Cooperating Agency, or a determination is made if the agency has a specific interest in the project. Along with the invitation, each agency is provided a project summary (including a map of the project area) and a copy of the project coordination plan. Each agency is asked to respond in writing regarding if they accept or decline the invitation.

Seven Guiding Principles
  1. Preserve and Manage the Existing Transportation System
  2. Move a Growing, Diverse, and Active Population
  3. Support the State's Economy
  4. Maximize Safety and Security
  5. Build Partnerships for Livable Communities
  6. Promote Stewardship of the Environment
  7. Promote Financial Responsibility

Figure 2: The Seven Guiding Principles by which TDOT evaluates all transportation projects.

Typically, as part of the TESA process, a Transportation Planning Report (TPR) is prepared. The TPR summarizes the existing transportation conditions, outlines a preliminary purpose and need for the project, evaluates potential transportation options, and discusses any options that were eliminated prior to the NEPA process. Each option that is under consideration is subjected to an Early Environmental Screen process to identify environmental and/or community concerns. In addition, TDOT has adopted seven (7) guiding principles (See Figure 2) against which all transportation projects are evaluated. These guiding principles address concerns for system management, mobility, economic growth, safety, community, environmental stewardship, and fiscal responsibility.

During the development of the TPR, TDOT conducts meetings and coordinates with resource/regulatory agencies, local officials, local utilities, the public, and other stakeholders to identify issues, concerns, goals, objectives, and needs of the project relative to the guiding principles. Coordination with various agencies occurs during the development of the TPR and a summary of information is shared with the agencies as part of the first two concurrence points.

  • Concurrence Point 1: Purpose and Need and Study Area
    The package includes a definition of the study area, a project description, a determination of logical termini and independent utility, demonstration that the proposal is consistent with other plans, a summary of the overall project objectives, and a summary of any prior public and/or agency coordination.
  • Concurrence Point 2: Project Alternatives to be Evaluated in the Environmental Document
    Agencies are provided a second package of information to review that includes a description of the alternatives being considered, a summary of the alternative screening that will be used to evaluate the alternatives, as well as the results of the evaluation analysis. Prior to review of the concurrence package, a field review of the project is conducted with all of the agencies and additional stakeholders. A summary of field review and any previous comments (and how they were addressed) as well as any outreach or public involvement activities are also provided.
  • Concurrence Point 3: Preliminary Draft Environmental Document
    A copy of the draft environmental document is provided to the agencies for review. The draft environmental document outlines the purpose and need of the proposed project, discusses the alternatives that have been studied, discusses the environmental consequences of the proposed action, and summarizes the public involvement and interagency review that has occurred to date. Again, the agencies are given an opportunity to review and provide comments on the environmental document, prior to formal submittal to FHWA for their final review and approval.
  • Concurrence Point 4: Preferred Alternative and Preliminary Mitigation
    The final package of information includes a discussion of alternatives considered in the NEPA process, a summary of public comments received during the NEPA process, an overview of the preferred alternative, and summary of preliminary mitigation measures that are being proposed to address earlier issues and concerns with the proposed project.

In response to each concurrence point, an agency provides any comments and their formal concurrence or non-concurrence based on the available information. Depending on the project, information is provided to the agencies via bi-monthly meetings, site visits, and/or other forms of communication. Any significant concerns or issues are dealt with as part of the planning phase (Concurrence Points 1 and 2) prior to moving into the formal NEPA stage (Concurrence Points 3 and 4) of the project development process.

Future PEL Enhancements

TDOT is currently looking at opportunities to enhance and improve the TESA process during the earliest stages of the planning process. TDOT recently engaged the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Center for Environmental Excellence to assist the Department in looking at PEL best practices and to improve the linkages between the planning and environmental processes. Currently, TDOT is piloting the development of an enhanced Needs Assessment process to better define the need for a project, community issues, and the surrounding context, prior to the development of a TPR. This improved Needs Assessment process is intended to encourage better engagement of agencies, local officials, and other stakeholders at the earliest stages of the planning process. As conceived, TDOT's new PEL process would create a consistent approach and report format to better align the Needs Assessment, the Transportation Planning Report, and the environmental document, allowing each to serve as the foundation for the next phase. The new Needs Assessment is intended to be used by MPOs and Rural Planning Organizations throughout the state and should establish a consistent planning approach which will allow consideration of cumulative effects on a project-by-project basis, as well as at the community or regional level.

1 Tennessee Environmental Streamlining Agreement
2 Tennessee Environmental Procedures Manual
Page last modified on November 21, 2016
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