Environmental Guidance Documents

NEPA Process Guidance for Federal Aid Projects

As an integral part of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), the Environmental Planning Group (EPG) coordinates, prepares, and provides the environmental compliance for ADOT projects. The EPG oversees the preparation of environmental documents in accordance with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These interdisciplinary documents ensure that project associated environmental impacts and subsequent mitigation measures are addressed and implemented appropriately through construction.

In the absence of a federal action that would require NEPA, ADOT projects require a similar, state-level environmental evaluation process. Unless otherwise noted, this guidance refers to the federal NEPA process for projects that are funded or permitted by FHWA, but many steps are applicable to the state-level environmental evaluation.

Purpose of NEPA Process Guidance

The EPG NEPA Process Guidance is an on-line resource to aid ADOT, local public agencies and consultants in planning, preparing, and submitting environmental documents in support of proposed transportation federal aid projects. This guidance provides users with information and technical direction to develop, maintain, mitigate, and monitor projects that are in compliance with applicable federal and state laws.

For additional local public agency guidance, reference the ADOT Local Public Agency Projects Manual.

ADOT Project Development

EPG works with ADOT staff through all phases of transportation project development, from planning through operations. Through the Multimodal Planning Division, ADOT employs a multi-phased project development process that integrates environmental requirements with engineering design. Adhering to the NEPA process, EPG conducts environmental analyses to determine if a project will have an impact on the environment.  This determination is used as a guide for how a project should be developed to avoid, minimize, or off-set impacts to the environment.

NEPA Process

NEPA [42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.] was signed into law on January 1, 1970, establishing a national environmental policy and goals for the protection, preservation, and enhancement of the environment. Governed by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), NEPA provides a process for federal agencies to carry out these goals. The NEPA process is initiated when a federal agency plans to take an action. This may include providing federal funding, such as Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) federal aid program monies, use of federally managed lands such as the US Forest Service, or approving a federal permit, such as a permit from the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers (Corps). Once it is determined that the project must follow the NEPA process, a clear understanding of the purpose and need for the project is developed. Through NEPA scoping, input regarding the proposed project is solicited from the public and other potentially affected federal, state, tribal and local agencies. Based on the purpose and need as well as the scoping input, alternatives are developed and analyses of potentially affected resources are performed. A draft NEPA document is developed based on the information gathered and, in the case of an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS), the draft document is published for review by the public. Following an analysis of the comments received, and potential additional technical analyses, the final NEPA document is developed, including the identified mitigation measures. The mitigation measures from a categorical exclusion (CE), EA, or EIS are integrated into the engineering design and ultimately implemented and monitored long-term when appropriate.

In general, the steps of the NEPA process correspond to phases of the project and include the following:

Project Development and NEPA

As indicated, EPG facilitates the environmental review under NEPA (or the state-level process) in parallel to ADOT’s project development process. During the project development planning phase, the funding sources for the project are defined. During project scoping, the permitting requirements for the project are identified, and the presence or absence of federal or tribal land ownership in the area of study are confirmed. These elements determine if the NEPA process is required or if the project should conduct a state-level environmental review. A preliminary assumption of the level of documentation required is typically made at this point. Concurrent with the project development design phase, EPG has extensive involvement in the project to manage the NEPA process and analyses and oversee the production of the environmental document. During the design phase and in consultation with the appropriate agencies, the level of documentation required is determined based upon the complexity of the project, the affected environment, and the anticipated environmental impacts. For example, the technical analyses may result in the development of additional alternatives or public review of the draft NEPA document may result in additional technical analyses. At the conclusion of the development of the NEPA document the agreed upon mitigation measures are incorporated into the engineering plans, specifications, and cost estimates. EPG involvement may continue through the construction phase to confirm the agreed upon mitigation is implemented and that the mitigation is monitored during the operations phase.

NEPA Documentation

The NEPA process consists of an evaluation of the potential environmental effects of a proposed federal action. There are three classes of actions, which stipulate the level of documentation required during the FHWA implementation of the NEPA process (23 CFR § 771.115):

  • Class I – EIS. Actions that significantly affect the environment require an EIS. An EIS results in a Record of Decision (ROD).
  • Class II – Programmatic or Non-Programmatic CE. Actions that do not individually or cumulatively have a significant environmental effect are excluded from the requirement to prepare an EA or EIS.
  • Class III – EA. Actions in which the significance of the environmental impact is not clearly established. All actions that are not Class I or II are Class III. All actions in this class require the preparation of an EA to determine if an EIS is required due to significant impacts or if a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) is to be issued.

In the development of the appropriate NEPA document, EPG coordinates and consults with local, state, and federal agencies. Ultimately, the type of document developed is at the discretion of the federal agencies involved.

Technical Analyses

Technical analyses must consider the following environmental factors:

ADOT staff, consultants, and cooperating agencies have different roles and responsibilities throughout the environmental evaluation and documentation process. The lead federal agency, typically FHWA for ADOT projects, is the final decision maker within the NEPA process.  Other federal agencies, together with state, local or tribal agencies may function as joint lead, cooperating, or participating agencies.

Environmental Clearance

As part of the project development process, an environmental clearance is required. An environmental clearance is an acknowledgement from EPG that they have reviewed the project and the potential environmental concerns have been addressed. This is an ADOT required document, independent of NEPA that allows a project to move beyond the design phase and into the construction phase. There are specific clearance documents needed for work involving the following elements:

Non-federal project environmental clearance is documented similarly to federal project environmental clearance. The clearance documents that the project is in accordance with the Action Plan of the Arizona Department of Transportation for State-Funded Highway Projects.

Public Involvement

Public involvement plays an important role in the NEPA process. Near the outset of the NEPA process (and depending on the level of documentation required), the public is invited to participate in the scoping process by receiving project information and by attending public scoping meetings and submitting comments to the lead agency. Public comments provide valuable information on issues to be addressed as part of the environmental analyses. During the development of a NEPA document, the lead federal agency documents and incorporates input from the public into its decision making process. The CEQ document A Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA: Having Your Voice Heard provides further detail regarding the NEPA process and the role of the public.