Navigating the “new NEPA” — What MPOs & DOTs Need To Know

The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) — a pillar of environmental law that has undergone little reform since its creation 50 years ago — saw major rollbacks this summer after proposed changes were finalized by The Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ).

After reading the 194 page document, here’s what you need to know about the new NEPA regulations, set to begin in September.

What do the CEQ’s NEPA changes mean for public involvement?

  1. The “new NEPA” may not stick. The nature of the changes are striking controversy amongst environmental and Environmental Justice groups, who are already filing suit in court. Additionally, if a new administration is voted into office in November 2020, these new regulations would be subject to the Congressional Reform Act and could be rescinded entirely.
  1. However, steps towards “modernization” will likely stay, regardless of these specific changes remaining in place. The economics and equity that digital communications tools offer are a far cry from what they previously could, even in 2015 when the FAST Act directed ‘further exploration of the modernization of NEPA’. The public’s expectation of these communication channels will continue to be a driving force in how the process evolves.
  1. Interagency coordination will become a critical part of streamlining projects. The increasing need to reduce an average 4.5 years for NEPA completion means that we have to be smarter and more efficient when it comes to sharing information across jurisdictions. Such directives include the determination that NEPA is inapplicable when public participation procedures under another statute satisfy its requirements (i.e., are functionally equivalent). Working together with regional councils and local governments who have managed their public involvement well can dramatically reduce project time frames as a result.
  1. The “new NEPA” reiterates the requirement to provide summary documents for all public comment. In fact, despite the new regulations limiting the frequency and scope of public involvement, summary documents for public comment are mentioned more than a dozen times. When prioritized alongside accelerating project delivery, this means transportation planners will need to be more organized than ever before. 
  1. A rising need for a single source of truth. With shrinking project timelines and an expectation to categorize and respond to comments systematically, there’s more potential for oversight, human error, and manual work. Leveraging technology to create a standardized system of record for public involvement creates certainty and peace of mind for NEPA compliance and efficiencies across projects and project managers.

Ensuring compliance with an uncertain NEPA’s future

  1. Maintaining a high standard to ensure compliance. NEPA is not going away, and regardless of whether the reformed regulations stand come November, lowering the bar for public participation has never been an approach we accept just to make our jobs easier. 
  1. Automating comment documentation and analysis. According to The CEQ, over 32% of the time it takes to prepare a final Environmental Impact Statement is dedicated to documenting and addressing comments from the draft EIS. When communications and engagement methods are unified with smart analytical tools, feedback is collected, documented, and analyzed instantly. 
  1. Prioritizing data management to increase efficiency. Public involvement can stall projects, but timelines can be streamlined when  the right public involvement software is in place. When every aspect of public involvement is integrated and managed from a central database, regional and state planners can guarantee compliance. 

The takeaway: As we noted on a recent webinar with the North Carolina DOT, project delays are often a result of the effort it takes to overcome public involvement hurdles, and the past several administrations have all made efforts to find a solution. The current revisions represent continued momentum on this front, albeit with several notably problematic strategies that we believe have the potential to inhibit broad, representative public participation.

Regardless of the challenges, we must retain the spirit of NEPA to protect Environmental Justice. Streamlining projects is a critical need, but it does not mean negating our obligation to the environment and potentially impacted communities. Rather, the solution lies in leveraging technology in a way that reduces manual tasks, increases equity, and maintains future-proof compliance.

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