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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-12-006    Date:  September/October 2012
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-12-006
Issue No: Vol. 76 No. 2
Date: September/October 2012


Expediting Environmental Approvals

by Kevin J. Starner

Two Pennsylvania bridge replacements illustrate techniques for complying with NEPA while delivering small-scale projects efficiently. Here are six steps from a design perspective.

Field views like this one conducted near Gettysburg, PA, are part of an effective project scoping process.
Field views like this one conducted near Gettysburg, PA, are part of an effective project scoping process.

All projects funded by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) or requiring FHWA approvals need to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. NEPA involves consideration of the potential for impacts on a number of resources that are protected to some extent by other laws under the NEPA umbrella, including wetlands and watercourses, threatened and endangered species, noise and air quality, and cultural resources. Other concerns include flood plain encroachments, farmland takings, hazardous and residual waste sites, socioeconomic impacts, and provisions related to Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966.

Section 4(f) states that FHWA and State departments of transportation (DOTs) cannot approve the use of land from publicly owned parks, recreational areas, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, or public and private historical sites unless there is no feasible and prudent alternative to the use of that land and the action includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the property resulting from use.

The NEPA process requires the balancing of a project's benefits with its environmental impacts to achieve informed governmental decisionmaking. The law does offer various paths for clearance of a project, depending on the scope and intensity of its impacts on various resources, the level of public and agency controversy, and the project's consistency with other Federal, State, and local laws. A review of its purpose and need should compare the project's overall public interest to the challenge of the impacted community's enduring negative effects. Some projects require extensive environmental analyses, plus disclosure and negotiation with stakeholders, documented in an environmental impact statement. Other projects may not require as extensive documentation.

"A significant percentage of transportation investments are small-scale rehabilitation and reconstruction projects aimed at preserving the existing network," says Sharon Okin, environmental manager, PennDOT Engineering District 8-0. "By their nature, these projects are categorically excluded from the requirements to prepare an environmental impact statement because, based on experience, such projects do not result in significant environmental impacts."

Categorical Exclusions are actions that meet the definition contained in the Code of Federal Regulations (23 CFR § 771.117). Based on past experience with similar actions, they do not involve significant environmental impacts to planned growth or land use; do not require the relocation of significant numbers of people; do not have a significant impact on any natural, cultural, recreational, historic, or other resources, do not involve significant air, noise, or water quality impacts; do not have significant impacts on travel patterns; and do not otherwise, either individually or cumulatively, have any significant environmental impacts.

The topography and history of Pennsylvania created potential complexities for even minor projects. Topography dictated Native American and European settlement patterns, resulting in historic and archaeological sites that require careful consideration during bridge replacements. Although most rehabilitation and reconstruction projects might be fairly benign from an environmental perspective, occasional projects are located in ecologically distinctive or sensitive settings or involve unusual circumstances that result in environmental impacts.

These projects generally require case-by-case agency coordination, field studies, and environmental analyses to identify and resolve project-specific issues. In some cases, environmental complexities are not fully recognized or understood at the outset, resulting in an inadequate scope of work or an unrealistic schedule for delivering the project.

To illustrate key techniques for delivering these small-scale, environmentally challenging projects in a timely and efficient manner, two Pennsylvania bridge replacements are highlighted below as case studies. But, first, the following six steps to help facilitate such projects are worth a review: effective scoping, continuous coordination, design flexibility, accurate impact assessment, negotiated mitigation, and proper documentation.

Effective Scoping

Scoping is a critical first step in the process of effective project development and implementation, and leads to acknowledgement of the level of environmental impacts and need for documentation. Effective scoping includes discussing the project with the affected and interested stakeholders. Starting off on the right foot with open discussions requires a clear understanding of the project's purpose and the need.

The outcomes of effective scoping -- a better understanding of community context and the extent of community interest and concerns, an engineering scope of work, and an understanding of associated environmental implications -- will pay dividends as the project advances into design and eventually into construction. Effective scoping is especially important for projects with complex scopes of work or significant environmental issues, such as the replacement of a bridge listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Identifying the environmental issues during the scoping process enables the project team to factor responses to them into the budget, schedule, and design -- right from day one.

Effective early involvement of agencies and the public also goes a long way toward avoiding future surprises. The last thing any design engineer wants to hear is that a previously unidentified or unrecognized issue is going to require a change in the project design.

Project scoping is an appropriate time to identify and involve stakeholders and jurisdictional officials who might have an interest in the project. Identifying these groups early in the planning process enables the project team to better understand the coordination that will likely be required. By identifying these groups and individuals, experienced project managers might be able to predict certain design requirements and environmental impacts and identify likely mitigation measures that will need to be incorporated into the project, thus saving time and budget.

Key questions to ask include the following: (1) Are all the resources that are present in the project area identified? (2) Which resources should be avoided at all costs or impacts on them minimized? (3) What are the appropriate methodologies for evaluating the important resources? Sometimes, agencies and the public employ different terms for similar concepts. Designers need to be vigilant to ensure that they are communicating effectively with stakeholders and that all sides understand each other.

Continuous Coordination

During scoping, the project team should initiate coordination with the stakeholders and jurisdictional officials. The earlier in the project process the coordination begins, the sooner the project team will be made aware of the concerns and desires of the involved parties. Similar to the benefits of effective scoping, knowing the concerns and desires early in the process will pay dividends as the project advances into design and eventually into permitting and construction.

The coordination occurring in this meeting between representatives of PennDOT and other stakeholders took place early in a project development process.
The coordination occurring in this meeting between representatives of PennDOT and other stakeholders took place early in a project development process.

Such dividends include the likelihood of adequate time for the identified issues to be considered or addressed during the planning, preliminary engineering, and design processes. If the stakeholders' issues and concerns are addressed and resolved early, the project should move through permitting and into construction with little delay. This concept holds true for both large- and small-scale projects, but is particularly applicable to those small-scale projects that have a number of environmental issues that need to be resolved within the confines of a compressed project schedule. Large-scale projects generally are recognized as needing more time to get through the NEPA and preliminary engineering processes. With projects that are small from an engineering perspective, however, often no extra time is given to resolve potential environmental complexities.

"Design engineers might not understand or appreciate the importance of early coordination, but anyone who has ever been tasked with getting stakeholder buy-in or agency concurrence as part of the environmental approval process soon learns just how important early coordination is," says Okin.

Early coordination earns trust and shows stakeholders and officials that the project team is interested in their input. Further, during the early coordination process, the team provides the stakeholders and officials with important information about the project before significant design work has been completed. This involvement affords those parties the opportunity to have their particular concerns factored into the engineering design from the beginning, avoiding potentially costly design changes later in the process.

Staking out a limit of disturbance, as this worker is doing, is one method of assessing a project’s impact. Everything inside the survey flagging on the tree and the riverbank—forestland, wetlands, and threatened or endangered species—could be impacted by a bridge replacement.
Staking out a limit of disturbance, as this worker is doing, is one method of assessing a project's impact. Everything inside the survey flagging on the tree and the riverbank-forestland, wetlands, and threatened or endangered species-could be impacted by a bridge replacement.

Design Flexibility

Design flexibility is important when a project is faced with environmental challenges. Maintaining the ability and willingness to make modifications and adjustments to the design in order to avoid or minimize certain environmental impacts can make the difference between successful project delivery, no project delivery, and unnecessary delay. In certain cases, relatively minor changes at the request of the stakeholders or officials can result in achieving the changes needed to move forward.

Design flexibility for small-scale reconstruction projects might involve shifting a proposed widening from one side of the road to the other, choosing an alternate bridge type, or using reduced design criteria, such as 3R (resurfacing, restoration, and rehabilitation) standards for decreased shoulder and lane widths. Now, with Pennsylvania's current Smart Transportation Initiative, it is markedly easier for design engineers to be flexible with their project designs when needed. Smart Transportation principles afford greater flexibility in an effort to better meet local needs and accommodate environmental resources.

If design flexibility can assist project delivery, then rigidity of design can, in certain instances, be counterproductive. Design engineers who remain unnecessarily committed to design criteria not related to safety could face an uphill battle winning over stakeholders and officials. A cooperative process of identifying concerns and working to resolve them in a mutually acceptable fashion might very well involve some modifications to the project design. A design should never be modified, however, to the point of compromising public safety.

Accurate Impact Assessment

Most transportation projects for infrastructure improvement require some level of assessment of environmental impacts. Assessing impacts accurately is key to moving a project forward in a timely and effective manner. Mistakes or oversights in this process, such as inadvertently missing a resource or not accurately quantifying an impact, can result in significant delays in approval and permitting for the project.

Accurate impact assessment ensures that each and every environmental resource and the project's effect on those resources have been identified and accounted for as part of the project's NEPA review process or permit application. Impacts can be reported to stakeholders and officials with the intent of negotiating a mutually acceptable mitigation package (more on that later). In some cases, it might be necessary to acquire written concurrence from them with respect to certain project impacts, such as a minor impact to a publicly owned park, recreation area, wildlife refuge, or historic site of national, State, or local significance. In these cases, accurate impact assessment is key to avoiding unnecessary delays in the schedule brought about by the need to recoordinate changes in the project impacts with the appropriate officials or stakeholders. Unfortunately, this is sometimes unavoidable with design-level changes that occur between preliminary engineering and final design. When this happens, environmental impacts should be reevaluated, and the new changes should be recoordinated with the stakeholders and officials.

Negotiated Mitigation

Mitigation is a means that a project team can use to avoid, minimize, rectify, or compensate for the impacts of a project on a particular resource. From a project team's perspective, mitigation is the list of agreed-upon items that need to be included or incorporated into a project's plans or contract to ensure that the items are implemented, as a condition of satisfying NEPA. From a stakeholder's or official's perspective, mitigation is the commitment for avoidance, minimization, and compensation that needs to be included in order to resolve impacts on the environment. Regardless of perspective, project teams that work with stakeholders and officials to identify mutually acceptable mitigation measures will get the job done for both sides of the table.

Henry's Woods Project Location

Map. Shown is a map of Pennsylvania with the county lines. A projection from the State map shows Northampton County in eastern Pennsylvania. Within the county, Bushkill Township is labeled to show the project location.

"Anyone who has been involved in an environmentally challenging project requiring concurrence from the stakeholders or officials understands the importance of negotiated mitigation," says Okin. In some cases, without negotiated mitigation, obtaining concurrence on a project from certain stakeholders or agency officials on mitigation measures for a minimal impact finding or a threatened/endangered species impact would be impossible. Uncoordinated, ineffective, or unsuccessful mitigation can cause stakeholders or officials to refrain from issuing their concurrence or permit. Therefore, identifying and developing a mutually acceptable mitigation package is a key component of the NEPA process for any project involving environmental impacts.

Proper Documentation

Effective scoping, early coordination, design flexibility, accurate impact assessment, and negotiated mitigation can all be undone by not having the proper documentation of the project coordination process. Keeping accurate records, securing the appropriate written concurrences, and preparing the applicable documentation of NEPA decisions and commitments are central to the successful delivery of environmentally challenging small projects, or any projects. Gaps or inaccuracies in any of these documentation records can result in delays in project delivery, specifically in obtaining notices to proceed and permits.

Proper documentation could include, but is not limited to, meeting minutes, written correspondence, emails, telephone communication logs, memoranda, and notes for the project file. Maintaining an accurate project file is necessary to demonstrate that regulatory requirements have been satisfied. Use of FHWA's Planning and Environmental Linkages questionnaire is one method that can be used to document the coordination process that typically occurs during the planning phase of project development. The questionnaire and instructions for using it can be found at www.environment.fhwa.dot.gov/integ/pel_quest.asp.

Similarly, certain environmental requirements mandate specific written concurrences from the stakeholders and officials to comply with those requirements. For example, application of a Section 4(f) de minimis impact finding (a minor impact on a Section 4(f) resource such as a publicly owned park, refuge, or other site) requires written concurrence from jurisdictional officials certifying that the proposed project will not adversely affect the activities, features, or attributes that qualify a particular resource for Section 4(f) protection. Section 4(f) compliance is one environmental process that requires a specific written concurrence from the appropriate jurisdictional officials.

Case Studies

Two bridge replacement projects in Pennsylvania demonstrate the importance of these six steps. Both projects involved relatively straightforward engineering scopes of work for bridge replacements. However, due to the locations of the projects and the surrounding environmental resources, they were each accompanied by a number of environmental complexities that presented challenges.

Henry's Woods Bridge Replacement

The Henry's Woods Bridge Replacement Project involved the replacement of the S.R. 1008 bridge carrying Henry Road over Bushkill Creek. The bridge is located in Bushkill Township, Northampton County, in eastern Pennsylvania.

In September 2004, flooding caused by Hurricane Ivan had severely damaged the existing truss bridge. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) had to remove the structure and close the road to traffic until a new bridge could be constructed. PennDOT initiated a preliminary engineering contract to move forward with replacing the bridge and reopening Henry Road to the traveling public.

The project team used the staining seen here and concrete form liners on the outer surfaces of the Henry’s Woods Bridge so that it would resemble nearby historic stone buildings.
The project team used the staining seen here and concrete form liners on the outer surfaces of the Henry's Woods Bridge so that it would resemble nearby historic stone buildings.

From the initial scoping, the project team recognized that the replacement would be accompanied by a number of environmental impacts due to its location adjacent to the Jacobsburg State Park and Environmental Education Center and within the Jacobsburg National Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Following the scoping field view, the project team conducted detailed investigations to determine the exact locations, boundaries, and physical characteristics of these resources. The team initiated coordination with the appropriate jurisdictional officials -- the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) -- to introduce the proposed project in its most general form and to solicit any preliminary questions or concerns. In Pennsylvania, the PHMC functions as the State Historic Preservation Officer, a key official in the Section 106 process of the National Historic Preservation Act.

As the project advanced into the design process, coordination with these two jurisdictional officials occurred on a routine basis. The project team held a special agency coordination meeting with local and State representatives of the DCNR to discuss the design of the proposed replacement bridge, assess the impact on the park, and identify mutually acceptable mitigation measures.

Further, the team coordinated with the PHMC regarding impacts on the Jacobsburg Historic District, via submission of a Section 106 (of the National Historic Preservation Act) determination of effect report. Because the boundaries of the State park and the historic district overlap, the PHMC accepted the mitigation measures identified by the project team in consultation with the DCNR. These mitigation measures included the use of minimum design criteria to reduce the total width of the proposed replacement bridge by 4 feet (1.2 meters), formalization of a formerly unofficial PennDOT winter maintenance program to assist the DCNR with snow removal at select park locations, and application of context sensitive design via the use of concrete form liners and staining on the outer surfaces of the proposed replacement bridge to resemble historic stone buildings within the general project area.

As a result of this design flexibility and negotiated mitigation, the project team was successful in receiving concurrence on a "no adverse effect" finding under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and from both the DCNR and PHMC. These findings enabled the project's Section 4(f) uses to be documented as a de minimis finding of minimal impact. The project's NEPA requirement was subsequently processed by way of the preparation of a Pennsylvania Categorical Exclusion evaluation allowing the project to advance into final design and construction in a timely and efficient manner.

Little Buffalo Project Location

Map. Shown is a map of Pennsylvania with the county lines. A projection from the State map shows Perry County in south-central Pennsylvania. Within the county, Centre and Juniata townships are labeled to show the project location.

"This was an early example of PennDOT District 5 using the design flexibility concepts to balance the needs of the traveling public with the important cultural and natural resources surrounding the project," says Gerald Fry, P.E., who was head of the PennDOT District 5-0 Design Services Division at the time.

Little Buffalo Bridge Replacement

PennDOT's Little Buffalo Bridge Replacement Project involved the replacement of the S.R. 1011 bridge carrying State Park Road over Little Buffalo Creek. The bridge, located in Centre and Juniata townships, Perry County, in south-central Pennsylvania, was considered to be structurally deficient and functionally obsolete. To improve motorist safety and ensure continued public access, PennDOT programmed the bridge for replacement.

As with the Henry's Woods Bridge, the project team recognized from the initial scoping that the Little Buffalo Bridge project was accompanied by a number of environmental impacts. In this case, the issues were due to the bridge's location within Little Buffalo State Park and the Little Buffalo Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Further, the project team found that the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) stocked this stretch of Little Buffalo Creek with trout. The project would therefore be subject to timing restrictions (March 1-June 15) on instream construction to avoid conflicts with the spring season for trout fishing.

Working under contract to PennDOT's Engineering District 8-0, the project team moved forward into preliminary engineering. Almost immediately, PennDOT contacted the local DCNR park manager to inform him of the proposed bridge replacement and to solicit any initial questions or concerns.

Once the project team had established a preliminary bridge design, the team held a special meeting to coordinate with local and State representatives of the DCNR to discuss the proposed design, assess impacts on the park, and identify mutually acceptable measures to minimize and mitigate those effects.

As a result of this meeting, the team incorporated several parkland improvement activities, such as parking upgrades, trail adjustments, and signage enhancements, in the area of the proposed replacement. The team also agreed to a context sensitive design incorporating the use of concrete form liners and staining on the outer surfaces of the proposed replacement bridge to resemble the stone foundation of an adjacent historic tavern.

In addition, DCNR officials indicated that they were concerned about the project schedule in that they wanted the road to be open during the park's peak use period from Memorial Day to Labor Day. PennDOT representatives acknowledged the burden that would be placed on the park by a road closure during peak use. They agreed to implement the construction phase as early as possible so that the road would open by Memorial Day.

However, the early opening would be possible only if the project could be exempted from the PFBC's timing restriction of March 1-June 15 on instream construction. The project team and DCNR park manager held a joint meeting with local and State representatives of the PFBC to discuss the possibility of a waiver on the timing restriction. PFBC officials also recognized the burden that a summer road closure would place on the park and agreed to the waiver, contingent upon the inclusion of some stream enhancement work as part of the proposed replacement project.

Finally, the project team met with the local historical society and prepared a Section 106 determination of effect report to document the project's effect on the Little Buffalo Historic District. For this project, the local historical society had no concerns and indicated that they would defer to the judgment of the DCNR in regard to concurrence. The project team submitted the determination of effect report to the State's Historic Preservation Office and was successful in achieving concurrence on a Section 106 "no adverse effect" finding for the project.

As with the Henry's Woods Bridge Replacement Project, the Little Buffalo project team was able to document the proposed project's Section 4(f) uses by way of a de minimis use finding. The project's NEPA requirement was processed by way of the preparation of a documented Categorical Exclusion evaluation. Completion of this environmental documentation enabled the project to advance without delay into final design and construction more quickly.

Final Thoughts

These two case studies illustrate the successful application of the six steps to achieve construction in a timely and efficient manner. As demonstrated by these examples, even relatively minor projects from an engineering perspective can be burdened by significant environmental challenges. In some instances, when not considered early, these challenges can result in delays in the NEPA review process and in delivering the project to the traveling public.

Environmental challenges are one of many things that may have the potential to increase the overall cost of projects by requiring special design considerations or mitigation measures. However, these challenges are also ones that can be reduced through implementing the project delivery concepts outlined above. Environmental challenges that are identified at the outset and effectively factored into all aspects of the process, including the overall schedule and budget, then are much less likely to cause project delays. Consequently, these steps can have an impact on advancing the project through the NEPA process in a timely and efficient manner, while simultaneously resulting in a better project.

Located entirely within a State park, the Little Buffalo Bridge project involved the replacement of the existing S.R. 1011 bridge carrying State Park Road over Little Buffalo Creek. The historic tavern is visible in the background.
Located entirely within a State park, the Little Buffalo Bridge project involved the replacement of the existing S.R. 1011 bridge carrying State Park Road over Little Buffalo Creek. The historic tavern is visible in the background.

Kevin J. Starner, CEP, is a senior project manager and environmental specialist at Skelly and Loy, Inc. - Engineering and Environmental Consultants in Harrisburg, PA. He has been with the firm for 14 years and specializes in the preparation of NEPA and Section 4(f) documents for transportation projects. He holds a bachelor's degree in geoenvironmental studies from Shippensburg University and is a certified environmental professional with the Academy of Board Certified Environmental Professionals.

For more information, contact Kevin J. Starner at 717-232-0593 or kstarner@skellyloy.com.




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