The NEPA Process

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

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A New Year-A Long Term Vision

It is hard to believe, but 2014 will be the eighth year of my career in Local Programs. Eight years of helping communities from one end of Tennessee to the other in getting their road, and bridge projects completed. It has certainly been a fun, but strange journey.

I know that I have talked about this issue before in various blog posts, but it is worth repeating: You must have a long term vision. 

Everyone: TDOT, Consultants, the general public, and especially the Local Government Officials, are frustrated by how long the process takes to complete a project. We could all rant and rave about this, but that would not solve the immediate issue of moving things forward. What I want to do instead is give you the information that you can use to plan out how long various parts of the project will actually take to get completed.

Below are a list of general guidelines on how long that you can expect certain activities to take to be accomplished. Please keep in mind that these are general guidelines based on what I have seen my most recent projects.

  • Time from when you send your chapter 3 information and contract request till when the TDOT Local Programs Office will send you a Locally Managed contract: 1-3 months (the TDOT Local Programs Office will probably want to conduct a “Staffing & Equipping” interview, which can take time to schedule)
  • Time from when you mail back the signed contract to the TDOT Local Programs Office, till when you get a fully executed contract and a Notice to Proceed (NTP) for the first phase of work (PE-NEPA): 2-3 months.
  • Time from issue of NTP for PE-NEPA till the Environmental Document is approved by TDOT and completed: 6 months minimum. 

    Now I need to be clear, the 6 month estimate is how long it would take for a simple Categorical Exclusion (CE) or Programmatic Categorical Exclusion (PCE). These are projects with a minimum of dirt being moved and a minimal environmental impact, if any.

    Other environmental documents include: a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), an Environmental Assessment (EA), or an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). These approvals are necessary if there are environmental impacts greater than what can be covered in a CE or PCE document. In this case all bets are off and you need to think in terms of years, not months, to get these approvals.

  • Time from issuance of the PE-Final Design NTP to the issuance of the ROW NTP: 1-3 months (depending on the project)
  • Time from the issuance of the ROW NTP to the issuance of the Construction NTP: 2-4 months (again depending on the complexity of the project, and it can take longer).

Each project has it’s own story, and is like a work of Art: unique in it’s own special ways. The numbers above are intended as general guidelines for planning. By doing the math you can see that I estimate that even a small and relatively simple project will take about a year from NTP for PE-NEPA till NTP for Construction. Can it be done in less time with the current constraints? Yes, but only if maximum effort is given, and it is still dependant on a certain amount of luck. For projects with any level of complexity beyond simple resurfacing within the existing right of way (ROW), things will take longer.

As I wrote in the beginning of this post: You need to have a long term vision for what you want to do. Both patience, and persistence are required not just in completing the project that you already have in the works, but also in mapping out the next project that you want to develop.

I hope that this posting has been helpful. Please feel free to give me a call if you have a question about your specific project. Happy New Year and good luck!

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TDOT Multimodal Access Fund Grants: A change in focus

The last month has been very busy for us at A2H. Early last month TDOT announced (http://www.tdot.state.tn.us/publictrans/fund.htm)that they would be accepting grant applications for a brand new funding source: the Multimodal Access Fund.

You can go to the website and read through the details, but here is the short version:

  1. TDOT has a $30 million bucket of State funding over the next three years for this program.
  2. The purpose is to provide bicycle, pedestrian, and links to transit facilities along or near State Routes. Think sidewalks and crosswalks, among other activities.
  3. Local governments apply through their MPO or RPO. Each MPO and RPO gets to submit two applications.
  4. Once grants are awarded, the local governments will follow the same TDOT Local Programs process, through the TDOT Local Programs Office to Locally Manage their projects. (Note: Local Governments may request that TDOT Manage their projects)

Please read through the TDOT guidelines to get the specific details.

What I see is a possible seachange for the way TDOT looks at transportation. Yes, yes, for years there have been the Transportation Enhancement (TE) Grants, now Transportation Alternatives (TA) grant programs. But this was part of the Federal Highway Bills as written by Congress, and merely carried out by TDOT.

This looks like it is something that TDOT has taken the initiative on. If so this would be a big change in thinking from the standard 4 lane divided highway with a continuous center turn (“chicken/suicide”) lane in the center that has been the standard TDOT “answer” to whatever transportation issues you have. Examples include Nolensville Road here in Nashville, or most of the main streets across the State. They do a great job of pushing vehicular traffic, but good luck trying to cross them on foot or ride your bike on them without getting killed.

Most State Routes don’t have any sidewalks along them, or if they do TDOT does not maintain them because they gave that maintenance responsibility to the Local Government. Most of the time TDOT only maintains “curb to curb” and nothing else. This is a huge issue for people in wheelchairs or mobility scooters. It is also a huge issue for Local Governments still feeling falling revenues. Building and maintaining sidewalks is not cheap.

The mere fact that TDOT is not only looking at ways people can use the roads without driving cars is a big deal. Dropping $30 million on the table over the next 3 years to actually do it gets my notice.

This years application deadline has passed, but there will be funding next year. I am interested to see how this “new” idea is received at TDOT and how these project develop.

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Transportation Alternatives (TA) Grant funding for Tennessee

Well, as some of you may be following, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) has published its draft of the next State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP). 

For those of you who don’t know, the STIP is essentially a checkbook for how TDOT plans on spending all of the State and Federal money that they have over the next 5 years. It rolls all 11 Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Transportation Improvement Plans (TIP’s) plus whatever TDOT is doing outside the MPO areas all into one big document. 

As with any big document like this, it can raise more questions than it answers. One of those questions is how much money will the Transportation Alternatives (TA) grant program will get this following year. I posed this question to Mr. Neil Hansen of the TDOT Local Programs Office and here is his response: 

“The exact amount of TAP funding is not yet available but I would assume that the state would receive approximately 10% more than last years allocation. My gut feeling is that somewhere between $8.25-8.75M will be available between <5K population areas, 5K-200K population areas and the ‘any area of the state’ suballocations.

That being said, please bear in mind that the Transportation Alternatives Office is still paying back the massive 2010 rescission, which will amount to a $5.4M reduction off the top of the funds suballocated for use anywhere in the state.

Thus, this is my best ‘guesstimate’ of the funding breakdown to be administered through the statewide completion as of now:

Any area of state TAP funding: $9.0 less $5.4M rescission payment = $3.6M
5K-200K population funding: $1.9M
<5K population funding: $3.2M

This would represent a total of approximately $8.7M for the 2014 TA Program, less any pending across-the-board rescissions, which will surely hit us at some point.

As far as the City of Memphis is concerned, I would estimate that they will have approximately $1.27M to distribute within their MPO boundary. Bear in mind that the Department is prepared to accept applications from all entities within the ‘Big 4’ MPO/TPO planning areas this year as well, so the competition will be fierce. In addition, I know of some municipalities that will be seeking multi-million dollar awards that could deplete the entire balance of available funding with just one or two potential awards.”

Now, like Neil said, this is his best guess. I am not holding him to it, and I don’t think that you should either. There are a lot of forces at play that are out of his control. Evidently there are several conservative political groups and politicians that want to do away with all TA grant funding. I just wanted to get this information out to everyone in the Local Programs world so that you can have some sort of information to plan from. 

The next round of TA grants are due November 1, 2013. If you are going to throw your hat in the ring, now would be the time. 

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Future Trends in Transportation Projects

The purpose of this blog is to help people who are involved with, or are curious about how the process of getting funding for road and bridge projects works. So from time to time I think that it is appropriate that I give you, the reader, my best educated guess on what the next few years is going to be like.

Keep in mind that this is my best guess on where I see things going. Be sure to take anything that I say with a grain of salt….

  1. New Highway Bill by October 2014: No matter what your political stripes, I think that we can safely say that the current Congress has not been exactly inspiring. Congress passed only a small two year (instead of 4 year) highway bill that runs out next year. This shorter leash on funding is definitely causing big headaches right now for TDOT trying to budget out their projects, and is only going to cause even bigger problems for the Cities and Counties with their funding problems.My prediction is that Congress will not pass the comprehensive 4 year Highway Bill next year that we all need. I am not exactly clear on how safe roads and bridges have become a political issue, but I guess it has.

    So what does that mean? It means that instead Congress will force TDOT and other Department of Transportations to limp along on a series of continuing resolutions every so many weeks and months. In practice this will cause delays on larger projects, cause them to cost more due to inflation, and generally dry up funding for all projects big and small.

    My unfortunate prediction is that Congress has no appetite for spending money on transportation. This may drag on for years until they decide that transportation is a priority once again. There are a lot of things that only Congress can come up with the money to fund.

  2. Decreased Transportation funding at City and County Level: I am privileged to work with County Highway Superintendents, Mayors, City Recorders and other highly dedicated public servants. I help them to try and figure out long term solutions to their transportation infrastructure needs.I am here to tell you that their budgets are cut to the bone. If you think that there is all sorts of waste in their budgets, and they just need to cut taxes and “tighten their belts” to run “smarter and more efficiently”. Well, I think that you are in dreamy world.

    At one time there might have been fluff in their budgets, and unnecessary staff on the payroll, but not today. Today every City, Town, and County is running on a shoestring budget with key people responsible for what a half dozen were doing a decade ago.

    Taxes, especially the gas taxes that County Highway Departments depend on, are flat or falling. Changing driving habits, more fuel efficient vehicles, and the way the gas tax is set up will all contribute to shrinking revenue’s for Counties.

  3. Bottom Line: The Roads Don’t Care. By this I mean that the roads and bridges that are getting more use and being forced to last longer than they were ever designed for don’t care about the excuse about why there is no money to repair or replace them.In the past few days I have seen on the news where the Chief Engineer, Mr. Paul Degges has been at the site of several bridge overpasses for I-40 going through downtown Nashville. The problem? They are starting to fall apart. The cost? Something like $60 million or so. Does TDOT have that kind of funding laying around? Not really.

    Keep in mind that this is the major east-west interstate for our country, going through the State Capitol for the State of Tennessee, which has some of the best infrastructure in the nation. And it is falling apart.

    I bet it is the smaller to medium sized bridges out in the rural areas that are getting worse every day, that keep Mr. Degges up at night. He knows about them, and he knows that he doesn’t have the funding to replace them.

    Inherently road and bridge projects take a lot of time to go through the planning, engineering, and right of way phases. Bigger projects can easily take decades before you ever get to the Construction phase. The key thing to remember is that you have to continually put these projects into the pipeline if you ever hope to see them come out the other side. Right now fewer projects are being added into the pipelines with TDOT, and local governments. This means that the current funding problems will have a ripple effect that we will see for years and years to come.

Solutions? I really do hate to sound all gloom and doom. But I have got to call it the way that I see it. So what to do?

  • Update your transportation/land use master plans. This way you have the best information to base your decisions on. Hard data is a better way to plan than a bunch of wild guesses. Also a component of these master plans are the public meetings that are put on as part of the process. This gives you a way to inform your communities on the hard choices ahead.
    These master plans are not cheap, but they cost less than a resurfacing project. They also cost less than misplaced priorities, and wasted opportunities.
  • Start making the hard choices now and let everyone know. I think that people have a greater respect if they are told the truth, even if it hurts, over having someone candy coat problems. If you can only fund 3 projects over the next five years, then pick those top 3 projects. Let everyone know that you deliberately didn’t pick the other 50 projects.

I wish I had some better answers but I don’t. I am seeing public servants across Tennessee come to the conclusion that there is no help on the way. Many of them have been treading water for the past couple of years. I think now the collective wisdom is that there is no new revenue on the way, their budgets will continue to shrink, their populations continue to grow, and their roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate.

Buckle up and plan accordingly.

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Final Dates for 2013 Mandatory TDOT Training

In order for TDOT to allow a local government to Locally Manage their projects they must attend two separate classes:

  1. The TDOT Local Government Guidelines and Right of Way Training is required for any local government that has now, or may have in the future any State or Federally funded project that goes through the TDOT Local Programs Office. This is a one day class where they have the TDOT Local Programs Office part in the morning and the ROW folks come for the afternoon segment. The training certificates for this class are good for 3 years. The next class will be two weeks from now in Nashville on August 14. You can find more information here TDOT LP and ROW training August 2013
  2. The Construction Engineering Inspection (CEI) Training is a separate class, and this is new. ALL LOCAL GOVERNMENTS THAT HAVE (or will have) LOCALLY MANAGED PROJECT MUST ATTEND. There is a little confusion about who must go to this class. There is a one day class that is for local government officials. There is also a two day class that is mandatory for any engineering consultant groups that will be doing CEI work on Local Programs projects. The next class is October 2nd and you can sign up here October 2013 CEI Training Class Flier

    Just because your consultant has gone to the training, this does not mean that you don’t have to go. The TDOT Local Programs Office requires that the local governments send a representative to this new training.

The good news is that all of this training is free of charge to local governments. Also, keep in mind that you can send any City or County employee to the training and their certificate counts for the whole municipality. Meaning that the Highway Superintendent does not have to go, but instead one of your administrative, or operations staff people can go instead of you. As long as they work for the City or the County then it counts.

TDOT is cutting back on the number of these classes that they give. If you miss this round of training then it will be months before the next one comes around, potentially holding up getting a contract for your project from TDOT. Please let me know if you have any questions.

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Next Local Programs Workshop: Lakeland, August 29, 2013

The date has been set for our next A2H Local Programs Workshop. We will host our next workshop on August 29th at our home office in Lakeland, Tennessee. You can click here Invite for A2H TDOT Workshop August 29 to find out more information.

This will be our third workshop for this year. I deliberately scheduled our workshop to fall a couple weeks after the official TDOT Local Government Guidelines and ROW Training class on August 13th in Nashville. This way I can get out any new information that may come out in the TDOT class. There are lots of changes going on at TDOT and especially in the Local Programs Office. I will be sure to cover those changes as part of our workshop in Lakeland.

I really do enjoy hosting these workshops. They are small enough that everyone can participate. We have a syllabus, but the program is flexible enough that we can take the time to focus on the areas that are the biggest concerns of the people who attend. The only downside is that I am pretty exhausted by the end of the day!

If this sounds like something for you, please give me a call at 615-838-6944 so I can reserve your spot today!

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