Getting NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) approval for your project is one of those steps that can seem like a little bit of dark magic. People know that it takes time, money, and can be a huge headache and hold up projects.
What I want to do in this post is to help pull back the veil and show how this process actually works. There are a lot of misconceptions about what NEPA is, and is not and I want to hopefully do is help you understand the process, and the reasoning behind it.
Now I am going to focus specifically on what NEPA approval means for Locally Managed Project that are following the process outlined by the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s (TDOT) Local Programs (LP) Office. Even more specifically, I am going to focus on lower impact projects like resurfacing, signal timing upgrades, bridge replacements, intersection improvements and traffic signals. These types of projects still require a Categorical Exclusion (CE) or Programmatic Categorical Exclusion (PCE) NEPA document even though their environmental impacts are minimal if any at all.
Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), and Environmental Assessments (EA) are much more intense processes. I am not as familiar with them, so I won’t cover those approvals.
I can hear your first question already: Why do we have to do anything if there is no real environmental impact? The reason is simple: Because Congress says so. If there is a penny of Federal funding on a project, that project must have some sort of NEPA document. I am sure that this decision came about because of some bad actions in the past. The bottom line is that TDOT will not reimburse you for Construction expenses on your project unless you follow their process. Step one of their process is to get a NEPA document.
The following are the steps that your project must follow in order to get a NEPA CE or PCE approval:
- Receive your Notice to Proceed (NTP) for Preliminary Engineering-NEPA (PE-NEPA) from the TDOT Local Programs Office. Without this, the TDOT Environmental Office can’t even help you get started.
- Call Scarlett Sharpe of TDOT Environmental Division. Scarlett will be your single point of contact for the whole NEPA process. She is very helpful and will walk you through the whole process.
- Submit your completed project documents to Scarlett Sharpe. Basically there are three things that you must submit to Scarlett.
-Your Agency Letters. These will get sent onto the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Hazmat and Air/Noise approvals. If necessary the Indian Tribes, the US Coast Guard, or the US National Park Service will be sent letters for approval.
-The Purpose and Need Statement for your Project. This document opens up the project for Scarlett and TDOT Environmental
-The completed 106 memo. This is what will get submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) for their approval
- Receive Agency Approvals. This can be a bit of a waiting game. The Agencies deal only with TDOT. They do not want to talk with the Local Governments or their consultants directly. They send the approvals (or any questions) back to Scarlett, who forwards them onto you (the Local Government or consultant).
Receiving approvals can happen as quickly as a few weeks, to as much as a few months.
- Submit the final Streamlined Documentation Checklist (SDC) to Scarlett Sharpe. Basically you take all the previous information that you submitted, and roll in all the approvals and submit that. Once it is signed by Ann Andrews and Scarlett Sharpe of TDOT then you have your approved NEPA document.
Sounds easy enough right?
All of these things take time. There is only one Scarlett Sharpe at TDOT who is wading through a ton of projects at any given time. Getting all the information that she needs, in the format that she needs it in can take time. The information needed in the Purpose and Need Statement, the 106 memo, and the Agency letters are similar but not exactly the same, and are not in the same format. On one project you can get an Agency approval in 3 weeks, on the very next project it can take the same Agency 3 months to send approval. Then there is a lot of follow up that needs to be done to keep things moving forward.
That is why you will need to hire an engineering consulting firm to handle this for you. The learning curve is just too steep if you have never done one of these before.
Now for the bottom line. Plan on all of this to take 6 months to complete a PCE or CE. That is 6 months from NTP for PE-NEPA till the completed/signed/approved NEPA document. If the stars align and the timing is just so, it can happen a little quicker. If your project involves ROW, multiple phases, or some other complication it can take a couple months more.
I hope this helps explain the NEPA process for you. Please let me know if you have any questions to your specific project.