Highway Planning:

Agencies Are Attempting to Expedite Environmental Reviews, but Barriers Remain

RCED-94-211: Published: Aug 2, 1994. Publicly Released: Aug 9, 1994.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed federal and state efforts to streamline environmental reviews for federal-aid highway projects, focusing on: (1) whether the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) and Federal Highway Administration's (FHwA) streamlining efforts will expedite the reviews; and (2) the amount of Highway Trust Funds spent on mitigating adverse environmental impacts.

GAO found that: (1) highway and environmental review agencies have streamlined environmental and permitting reviews for highway projects with impacts on wetlands; (2) the new streamlined review processes integrate National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and section 404 reviews, emphasize early interagency coordination, and include procedures to resolve interagency disputes; (3) EPA and FHwA have only completed one project review using the new review processes; (4) although EPA and FHwA expect the new review processes to expedite all project reviews, the integrated processes do not include an evaluation component, environmental review agencies do not have sufficient staff to fully participate in coordination meetings, and the new review processes do not assess a project's cumulative impacts on the environment; (5) FHwA has not defined environmental costs and does not routinely track the amount of funds states spend to mitigate adverse environmental impacts; and (6) none of the 11 states reviewed could provide complete information on their total costs for mitigating adverse environmental impacts.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: At the time the report was issued, the Chairman of the Subcommittee had expressed interest in obtaining data on the costs of environmental mitigation. However, the Chairman subsequently left office.

    Matter: If Congress wants to know the amount of Highway Trust Fund money spent on environmental mitigation, it may wish to require FHwA and EPA to work together to define environmental costs and develop accounting systems to track such costs. Congress could consider requiring FHwA and the states to collect these data on a pilot basis to first determine the costs and benefits of obtaining this information nationwide.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FHwA has been working with other federal agencies to ensure that environmental reviews run efficiently and without delays. However, the Department of Transportation does not believe that the duration of the review process is the most important element in ensuring an effective review process. As such, DOT does not believe that it is beneficial to track the time it takes to complete reviews or to develop an evaluation system for monitoring the review process. Instead, DOT will continue to work with other agencies to make sure that the agencies fulfill the intent of the National Environmental Policy Act requirements.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the successful implementation of efforts to integrate NEPA and section 404 requirements, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FHwA, to work with the states and the environmental review agencies to establish an evaluation component for the integrated processes that: (1) tracks the time taken for projects using integrated reviews; (2) assesses improvements to the processes using GAO baseline data; and (3) develops methods for addressing staffing limitations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 1997 the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published a handbook on cumulative impacts. FHwA played a key role in the development of this handbook. In addition, the handbook contains a number of highway-oriented examples. FHwA and CEQ are planning a series of workshops to ensure that the concepts presented in the handbook are appropriately applied by environmental impact assessment practitioners. FHwA will also prepare agency-specific guidance concerning using the handbook for highway projects.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the successful implementation of efforts to integrate NEPA and section 404 requirements, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FHwA, to work with the states and the environmental review agencies to develop highway-specific guidance on assessing projects' cumulative impacts and incorporate it into highway project planning.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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