Highways and Environment:

Transportation Agencies Are Acting to Involve Others in Planning and Environmental Decisions

GAO-08-512R: Published: Apr 25, 2008. Publicly Released: Apr 25, 2008.

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Meeting the nation's mobility needs requires constructing, improving, and repairing roads and bridges. However, these actions can have serious environmental impacts, such as harming water quality and wildlife and their habitats. The federal government's policy is to carry out federally funded highway projects in an environmentally responsible manner, as directed by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and other environmental and natural resource protection laws. The environmental review of projects, as required by the act, involves identifying and assessing environmental impacts; evaluating alternatives; seeking input, and in some cases approvals, from federal and state agencies responsible for natural resources, environmental protection, and historic preservation (referred to hereafter as resource agencies); and obtaining approval from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). These reviews provide important environmental protections, yet it is generally agreed that it often takes too long to complete the most complex highway projects and the environmental review is the most time-consuming aspect. In 2005, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) made a number of changes to the planning and environmental review processes required of state and local transportation agencies. These changes were intended to facilitate more efficient reviews of transportation projects, allowing them to be completed more quickly without diminishing environmental protections. For example, since SAFETEA-LU was enacted, federal law has required that state departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations (MPO) consult with federal and state resource agencies, among other things, in developing their long-range transportation plans. The law also requires that agencies charged with gaining environmental approval (such as FHWA and the state departments of transportation that sponsor the projects--called lead agencies) of the most complex highway projects--those requiring environmental impact statements (EIS)--invite resource agencies that have an interest in the project to participate in defining the purpose and need for the project, the alternatives to be considered, and the methodology for conducting the environmental review. The law also imposes a limit of 180 days for the filing of a lawsuit challenging final federal agency decisions, including environmental decisions, on a highway project. These activities were not required before SAFETEA-LU was enacted. Congress asked that we assess whether the changes Congress envisioned for transportation planning and the environmental review and approval of highway projects are being effectively carried out. Accordingly, we assessed (1) the progress that selected state departments of transportation, MPOs, and FHWA have made in incorporating environmental considerations in transportation planning and (2) the progress that selected states and FHWA have made in implementing changes in the environmental review of highway projects.

All six state departments of transportation and the six MPOs that we contacted are taking or considering initial steps to incorporate environmental considerations into long- range transportation planning, and FHWA has carried out a number of implementation and educational activities to guide their efforts. Four of these agencies (two state departments of transportation and two MPOs) have issued long-range plans that comply with the post-SAFETEA-LU planning requirements, according to FHWA. The others expect to do so by 2010, in line with their planning cycles. Several of the transportation planners and most of the resource agencies told us that getting early input from resource agencies could be beneficial in identifying potentially affected resources at an early stage so that mitigation or avoidance measures, if needed, could be identified early. However, they cited several challenges in getting such input, most notably (1) the limited availability of funding and staff at resource agencies; (2) limited incentives for resource agencies to contribute during planning, since early involvement is not part of these agencies' missions or experience; and (3) unfamiliarity on the part of resource agencies and planners with each other's roles and processes. State department of transportation and MPO planners' progress in developing consultation relationships with resource agencies has varied, and those that had strong prior relationships with resource agencies are advancing more quickly. For example, the North Carolina Department of Transportation told us it had started consulting with resource agencies as part of its planning process in 2004--before SAFETEA-LU was enacted. FHWA's implementation and educational activities include issuing regulations and guidance, disseminating leading practices, presenting Web-based seminars and other educational activities, and conducting oversight of state department of transportation and MPO transportation planning activities. State departments of transportation, MPOs, and other stakeholders that we contacted generally gave positive reviews of FHWA's efforts. According to FHWA officials, because of the long-term nature of the transportation planning process, it will likely take years before any benefits from these changes are apparent.

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