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National Environmental Policy Act

What Is NEPA?

The primary law governing the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) environmental protection process is the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.), as amended. Many different federal laws, rules, and regulations govern environmental review of federally-assisted mass transportation projects. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) establishes an umbrella process for coordinating compliance with each law through the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for all major federal actions significantly affecting the environment. Other special purpose statutes and procedures may apply as well, depending on specific circumstances, e.g., protective measures for historic properties, wetlands, floodplains, etc. If related environmental review requirements apply, they are to be undertaken as part of the NEPA compliance process.

NEPA establishes protection of the environment as a national priority and mandates that environmental impacts must be considered before any federal action likely to significantly affect the environment is undertaken. The Act has four primary purposes: 1) to declare a national environmental policy; 2) to promote efforts to protect the environment; 3) to improve national understanding of environmental issues; and 4) to establish the Council on Environmental Quality.

The "action-forcing" provisions of NEPA are contained in Sec. 102 C (42 U.S.C. 4332). This section includes three primary mandates:

  • To the extent possible, policies, regulations, and laws of the federal government must be interpreted and administered in accordance with NEPA.
  • Federal agencies must use an interdisciplinary approach in planning and decision making that impacts the human and natural environment; and
  • The preparation of an EIS is required on all major federal actions that may significantly affect the human or natural environment.

The application of NEPA to mass transportation projects is reinforced in the federal surface transportation statutes (23 U.S.C. Highways and 49 U.S.C. Transportation), that require the Secretary of Transportation to ensure NEPA mandates have been met before approving applications for federal financial assistance.

Complying With NEPA

The process for complying with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and federal surface transportation statutes is defined in the joint Federal Highway Administration/Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Environmental Impact and Related Procedures (23 C.F.R 771). The regulation sets forth the agencies' policy of combining all environmental analyses and reviews into a single process. It defines the roles and responsibilities of FTA and its grant applicants in preparing documents, and in managing the environmental process within the various project development phases. The principle component of this rule is as follows:

Class of Action Determination (23 C.F.R 771.115): Applicants intending to apply for Federal transit funding should notify FTA at the time a project concept is identified. Once the applicant has furnished sufficient information and documentation, FTA will advise the applicant of the probable class of action and the related level of documentation required in the NEPA process. There are three classes of action:

  1. Categorical Exclusions (23 C.F.R 771.117): Categorical Exclusions (CEs) are granted for actions that do not individually or cumulatively involve significant social, economic or environmental impacts. The projects listed in 23 C.F.R 771.117 require little or no construction and involve minimal or no effects off-site. The regulation gives a list of the types of projects that are categorically excluded. Once FTA has determined that a CE applies, it may act on the application for financial assistance.
  2. Environmental Assessments (23 C.F.R 771.119): FTA may require an applicant for financial assistance to prepare an Environmental Assessment (EA) when the significance of the environmental impact is not clearly established. An EA can result in either a Finding of No Significant Impact (23 C.F.R. 771.121) requiring no further environmental evaluation, or identification of potentially significant impacts requiring the applicant to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement.
  3. Environmental Impact Statements (23 C.F.R 771.123 et seq.): Depending on the nature of the proposed project, FTA may immediately require applicants to develop an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), or request an EIS based on the outcome of an EA. In either case, an EIS requires that a substantial technical analysis and public review process be conducted to evaluate project alternatives, identify potential social, economic and environmental impacts of the project, and designate methods to avoid or mitigate these impacts. Successful completion of an EIS results in FTA signing a Record of Decision (ROD). Once FTA has signed a ROD, the applicant can proceed with the project having complied with NEPA and FTA may act on the application for federal assistance.

NEPA-Related Federal Laws, Regulations, Orders & Guidance

Other NEPA Links

Updated: Tuesday, January 10, 2017
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