Achieving NEPA Assignment—4 ways the right consultant is critical to reaching this goal

August 2, 2018 Silvia Beltre

NEPA Assignment offers many benefits to a state agency, but how can you prepare for the application, execution, and implementation?

 

Many of you in the transportation or environmental services industries have likely heard of the NEPA Assignment program. I’ve been following the issue from the beginning, when five states were allowed to assume the United States Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other Federal environmental laws. Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP 21) opened this program up to all states.

And that’s when I got personally involved. Due to my established relationship with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), they asked me to research the NEPA Assignment program, interview other DOTs that already had NEPA Assignment to identify their best practices and develop a strategy for moving forward with an application, Memorandum of Understanding, and eventual implementation of the program. I’m proud to say that on December 14, 2016, after two years or research and preparation, Florida became the fourth state to implement this national program.

 

US Highway 1 and the Overseas Heritage Trail in the Florida Keys required extensive NEPA permitting.

 

What I discovered may help your state simplify the arduous journey of obtaining NEPA Assignment. But let’s first examine the highlights of why NEPA Assignment could benefit your state’s organization. Highlights include:

  • State DOT would be responsible for the fate of its own projects.
  • State DOT would have decision-making authority by assuming the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) responsibilities and liabilities.
  • More timely delivery of transportation projects to citizens.
  • Saves time and effort by eliminating a layer of review and approval.
  • More efficient use of State DOT staff and resources.
  • Realized cost savings can be applied to other State DOT projects.
  • Allows direct consultation between State DOT and federal regulatory agencies.
  • Consolidates all NEPA reviews under the State DOT.

 

Silvia Beltre worked with FDOT’s staff during the NEPA Assignment process

 

How can a consultant with NEPA Assignment experience help you?

Many state DOTs understand the benefits of obtaining NEPA Assignment. The real question is twofold: How can you manage the application process, and is a consultant important to your success? I would advise hiring a professional to help you organize and manage the process. Here’s what the team and I did to help FDOT achieve NEPA Assignment:

 

1. Program evaluation

We interviewed other states on best practices and lessons learned from not only the application process but also the implementation of the program, including getting ready for the annual audits in the first four years. It’s important to understand the legal considerations and responsibilities once your organization secures NEPA Assignment.

 

2. Assessing your organization’s readiness

It’s not enough to decide that the program is right for you. It’s necessary to examine your organization’s staffing, record keeping, and current environmental review process to ensure you have the financial and organizational resources in place to assume the responsibilities being requested. Remember, your state’s DOT is assuming FHWA’s role as environmental decision-maker.

 

3. Application process

My team worked on the pre-application requirements and application, and the Memorandum of Understanding, which was a two-year process. We also monitored any legislative changes and collaborated with the FHWA to ensure the final submittal and documentation was correct. I also want to stress the importance of selecting a consultant that brings strong relationships with state and federal agencies—communication and collaboration is a key to success.

 

4. Implementing the program

After NEPA Assignment is secured, there is a requirement to conduct an audit for the first four years of the program to ensure compliance. That’s where your consultant can provide guidance and statewide training on the new program. In our case, we also updated FDOT manuals and assisted FDOT with expanding their training program. 

 

_q_tweetable:Our team was essential in helping FDOT evaluate, assess readiness, apply, and successfully implement the program._q_Our team was essential in helping FDOT evaluate, assess readiness, apply, and successfully implement the program. This process included evaluating current processes and systems, conducting staff assessments, and recommending organizational changes.

We anticipate when FDOT moves into the monitoring phase, we will have similar success as other states that have implemented NEPA Assignment—California, Texas, and Ohio. California achieved NEPA Assignment in 2007 and has completed their FHWA audits. They are the only state currently in the monitoring phase, and the benefits they’ve seen include:

  • Time savings for processing of NEPA documents.
  • Costs savings resulting from streamlining the process.
  • No increase in litigation as compared to before program implementation.

Obtaining NEPA Assignment can be a daunting task, but you don’t have to face it alone. Selecting a consultant to work with you through every aspect of the process is an essential component to not merely submitting a successful application but to ongoing compliance.  

About the Author

Silvia Beltre

For 20 years, Silvia Beltre has been advising government and private entities on transportation projects, using her skills in public engagement to build relationships with those impacted by proposed projects. Her experience includes planning, analysis, design, NEPA compliance, and public involvement.

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