Environmental Review of Transit Projects Would Be Streamlined Under FTA Proposal

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By Amy Phillips  

The Federal Transit Administration is proposing to streamline environmental reviews for transit projects by expanding the categories of projects for which no significant environmental analysis is required.

FTA said in a March 15 proposed rule that it would create a new list of 10 “categories of actions” that apply to transit projects and that would allow for greater use of categorical exclusions (CEs) under the National Environmental Policy Act (77 Fed. Reg. 15,310).

“This new NEPA process would help provide transportation solutions to communities more quickly by potentially shaving more than a year off of the environmental review process for some projects,” FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said in a March 16 release.

Proposal Expands FTA List

Categorical exclusions are categories of actions which do not have a significant effect on the environment and do not require either an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement under NEPA.

Projects that qualify for categorical exclusions can side-step the time-consuming process of conducting and documenting environmental reviews.

Federal agencies establish their own criteria for categorical exclusions. Under current regulations, the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration define their CEs jointly under regulations at 23 C.F.R. 771.117(c) and (d).

The proposed rule would establish a new section at 23 C.F.R. 771.118(c) and (d) that would apply only to transit projects. The provisions under Section 771.117 would then apply only to highway projects.

Response to Presidential Memo

FTA said the proposed CEs would expedite transit projects that clearly have no environmental impact, such as projects to be built within an existing right-of-way where transit or other transportation facilities already exist.

Among the categories are certain maintenance and repair activities and property acquisition or transfers in cases in which the property is not within or adjacent to environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands, non-urban parks, or wildlife management areas, according to FTA.

FTA said the proposed rule is in response to the Aug. 31 presidential memorandum titled Speeding Infrastructure Development Through More Efficient and Effective Permitting and Environmental Review.

“The bottom line is that project sponsors would be able to spend less time and effort guiding projects through a maze of paperwork and more time building projects that will provide a real alternative to ever-increasing fuel costs,” Rogoff said.

‘Green-Lighting' Good Projects

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the rules will retain environmental protections while expediting projects.

“The changes we're proposing will allow us to still carefully assess the impact of transit development on the environment, while reducing the time and energy needed to green-light good projects that clearly do not have a significant impact on the environment,” LaHood said.

The agency said it has been 10 years since it comprehensively reviewed its list of CEs and 20 years since changes have been made as a result of a comprehensive review.

FTA said it will issue guidance regarding the use of the new CEs for transit projects after the proposal is finalized.

Comments on the proposed rule should be submitted by May 14 at http://www.regulations.gov using Docket ID No. FTA-2011-0056.

For More Information

The proposed rule is available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-03-15/pdf/2012-6327.pdf.