Planning and Environment Linkages

When a transportation improvement project is being considered, many residents believe that the bulldozers will arrive tomorrow. In contrast, the MPO Long Range Plan is often viewed as part of the distant and uncertain future. Linking long range planning and environmental review can help overcome this public confusion and focus stakeholder engagement as well as save time and money.

The graphic above illustrates the close correlation between actions in transportation planning and those in the NEPA process. Planning starts with the community context and is grounded in strong public and stakeholder involvement. Using this planning data can inform NEPA about community support for a project and potential controversial areas. The public is often frustrated when planning decisions are changed during NEPA. Additional details and effectively linking the two processes can help the public understand the relationship between the plan and the project. Environmental screening initiated in long range planning enables advanced mitigation of environmental and community impacts.

In order to effectively integrate planning and NEPA, documentation is essential. This record keeping allows decisions made in planning to be supported during NEPA without the need for re-do loops. This challenge to integration can be addressed through data and tools as well as documented decisions.

Planning and Environment Linkages allows projects to move more quickly by building on existing decisions and taking advantage of prior work; thus, reducing the redundancy in decision making. When NEPA practitioners and planners collaborate to successfully integrate the products from long range planning into the consideration of project alternatives, project development is more efficient, programming is more realistic, and early protection of the environment is possible. This application identifies the data, analysis, and decisions that transfer between the processes as well as the individual key decisions that they support.

The Decision Guide provides detailed information on the individual key decisions at which these processes are integrated. Explore the graphic below to learn about this relationship:

  • Hover over the highlighted key decisions to understand the specific relationship of planning and environment linkages to the decision.
  • Click on any highlighted key decision for more information concerning planning and environment linkages and this decision. You will find useful information in the "Data" and "Integrated Planning" tabs.

Key Decisions that are grayed-out have no specific relevance to the individual application or topic area but are still accessible from this graphic.

The PlanWorks Approach
Linking MPO planning with the environmental review process under NEPA provides consistency between the selected project alternative and the adopted long range transportation plan. Planworks provides the structure needed to identify those key decisions in long range transportation planning and environmental review that must remain coordinated and/or consistent in order to avoid the associated risks of re-do loops and other inefficiencies that impact funding and schedules.

Because the Decision Guide identifies specifically what information should be transferred between phases and for what purpose at individual key decisions, practitioners interested in collaboration as a means to link MPO planning and NEPA will find the support needed. Supporting information includes:

  1. The roles and interests of decision makers and key participants
  2. Information that should be transferred at individual key decisions
  3. Supporting data, tools, and technology for collaboration between the phase

Federal support for the concept
Federal law and guidance clearly supports linking planning and NEPA. SAFETEA-LU supports the integration of planning and NEPA through implementing guidance and regulations for planning (see AASHTO CEE - Environmental Considerations in Planning) The National Environmental Policy Act and the Council on Environmental Quality regulations encourage linking planning and NEPA (see 40 CFR Chapter V Section 1501.2 Apply NEPA early in the process). In addition, existing case law upholding the use of planning products in the NEPA process, support linking of planning and NEPA. Legislation and guidance encourage collaboration between planners and NEPA practitioners in order to achieve several benefits including:

  • Increased consultation among partners
  • Identification of potential broad scale mitigation opportunities
  • A clear authority to use planning level analyses and decisions during NEPA

For additional guidance see FHWA Planning and Environment Linkages Website.

Decision Making Partner Interests in Long Range Planning and Environmental Review
The Decision Guide data is based on considering all partner interests in transportation decision making: in other words, the specific perspective or values that a decision making partner brings into the process. For example, FHWA/FTA has an "interest" in ensuring that the requirements of the federal regulations are met. The Decision Guide considers the identified interests of the four partners and of the stakeholders in each phase of transportation decision making. The table below allows you to compare the interests of each partnering agency in both long range planning and environmental review. An understanding of interests may provide additional understanding for efforts to integrate these two phases.

Agency Partner Interests in Long Range Planning Partner Interests in Environmental Review
  • Is collaborative and inclusive with stakeholders and the public
  • Reflects the community vision and goals
  • Protects the use of public funds
  • Meets all legal and regulatory requirements
  • Meets air quality conformity
  • Is collaborative and inclusive with stakeholders and the public
  • Built on the foundation of previous processes
  • Correctly/accurately describes the process.
  • Meets legal and regulatory requirements
  • Considers state needs and deficiencies equally with other concerns
  • Considers how proposed uses affect functional classification and system ownership
  • Reflects interconnectivity decisions that will not adversely affect the state's system
  • Does not create a problem for design, maintenance, operations, and expansion
  • Conforms with the TIP/STIP
  • Meets air quality conformity
  • Is collaborative and inclusive with stakeholders and the public
  • Is comprehensive and fully disclosed
  • Incorporates input from regulatory agencies and other partners
  • Builds on previous processes
  • Begins after funding has been identified for a project
  • Based on an agreement among all partners as to the content of the NEPA document
  • Reflects streamlining through meaningful participation by all with attention to budget and schedule
  • Meets FHWA approval
  • Is fiscally constrained
  • Meets federal regulations
  • Conforms to air quality requirements
  • Is developed with broad consultation
  • Ensures equity (political, geographic, social)
  • Promotes consistency between transportation improvements and state/local planned growth and economic development patterns (land use)
  • Explores all possibilities and is realistic
  • Increases the accessibility and mobility for both people and freight
  • Enhances integration and connectivity across modes for people and freight
  • Emphasizes the preservation of the existing transportation system
  • Promotes efficient system management and operation
  • Increases the safety of the system for all users
  • Increases the security of the system for all users
  • Addresses the economic vitality of the area
  • Promotes energy conservation and quality of life
  • Protects and enhances both the human and natural environment
  • Is well documented in order to inform planning processes
  • Follows a public participation process
  • Is consistent with the program and long range transportation plan or identifies the reason for any changes.
  • Is consistent with regional information relied upon to develop the long range plan such as land development and conservation planning
Resource Agencies
  • Incorporates conservation planning
  • Incorporates and document large scale avoidance and minimization
  • Consider indirect and cumulative impacts/land use issues
  • Builds on the foundation of previous planning processes
  • Is legally sufficient
  • Is coordinated with other permitting requirements (e.g. Clean Water Act)
  • Follows an appropriate sequence - avoid, minimize, mitigate
  • Addresses a true need/deficiency
  • Based on an agreement among all partners as to the content of the NEPA document
  • Is inclusive of the public and stakeholders

PlanWorks provides several resources to assist in risk management of efforts to link MPO planning and NEPA. The table below can help guide you to the appropriate area of the site.

Risks Risk Management Strategies

Overcoming The Different Scale of Information in Planning and NEPA

Overcoming the different scales of planning and NEPA can be a challenge. Planning solutions are meaningful at a systems level while NEPA analysis is more detailed, smaller in scale, and greater in precision. While some decisions can be transferred directly from planning to NEPA, other decisions can only be used to inform the environmental review process. Tiered decision making, using sub-area or corridor studies, can help refine the level of analysis to more easily address the requirements within the NEPA process. Scale is also a factor in the specific tools used to support analysis at the regional and project level.

Use Sub-area and Corridor Studies: For some projects, one way to minimize the scale issues of linking planning and NEPA is to conduct additional planning studies, such as sub-area and corridor studies. These studies allow planners to gather additional details on the project, including potential environmental impacts. This additional level of detail allows a tiering down of decision making. See Corridor Studies application.

Use Supporting Tools and Technology: Although the tools most often used for a systems-level analysis are not sufficient for analysis at the project level, there are supporting technologies that reduce the need for duplicative efforts. Capacity analysis and the use of simulation modeling are two areas where the scale difference may be bridged.

Increased Demand on Staff and Agency Resources

Linking planning and NEPA is sometimes perceived as requiring additional work of the MPO staff and resource agencies where resources are limited. This demand is often magnified by a lack of understanding of the individual agency processes and requirements. Collaboration, either through formal agreement or informal working relationships, can improve these challenges over time. The NEPA process requires strong documentation; therefore, one essential requirement is for good, standardized documentation of information (data, decisions and analysis) that are to be passed from LRP to NEPA in order to avoid revisiting decisions made in planning.

Develop Cooperative Agreements: In some cases, cooperative agreements between planning partners may aid in the availability of staff and resources. MOU/MOA represent formal ways to establishing decision making relationships and sharing of resources, but there are many other less formal ways to collaborate. Some state DOTs fund positions at resource agencies to support transportation needs. This strategy can support planning activities as well as project involvement during NEPA. See Collaboration Assessment for strategies related to cooperative agreements.

Increase Collaboration between Planners, NEPA Practitioners, and Resource Agencies: Linking planning and NEPA requires that NEPA practitioners and resource agency representatives understand and accept the analyses and decisions made during planning. One way to accomplish this is for partners to know, understand, and accept each other's interests. The Decision Guide identifies where individual partners' interests are integral to the decisions being made so they can be engaged so their participation can be focused. In this way increased collaboration, communication, and coordination between partners establishes a process that is efficient and effective.