In a new regulatory policy stance, the Federal Highway Administration may provide more flexibility to state departments of transportations when those DOTs seek to exclude infrastructure improvements from detailed environmental reviews before the work can go forward.
The rule change would effectively allow the FHWA and state DOTs to negotiate additional project maintenance or upgrade activities to count as potential "categorical exclusions" from environmental review requirements, beyond an already approved but limited list of CEs the FHWA allowed up to now.
The change takes effect June 30.
Shannon Eggleston, program director for environment at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said AASHTO had sought the change on behalf of state DOTs, which can use the CEs to streamline projects for faster completion at lowest cost.
She noted that although the MAP-21 surface transportation legislation in 2012 allowed the FHWA to expand its allowable exclusions, the agency had since held to a list of about two dozen project types – already specified in regulation – that would qualify to avoid lengthy environmental reviews.
Eggleston said the new FAST Act, which authorized funding and programs through 2020, also allows the FHWA to expand the number of CEs so that states could proceed with construction, maintenance and infrastructure replacement projects in more areas without first going through detailed reviews, if that work would not have significant environmental impacts.
But it would take a new implementing regulation from the FHWA to put that change intp effect.
In addition, the FAST Act allows other cooperating modal administrations in the U.S. DOT to use the CEs for multimodal projects, further expanding the exclusions to include multimodal freight projects under newly funded formula and grant programs.
"This has been a major goal of AASHTO and our state DOT members, and will let states pursue more flexibility rather than be held to a static list of qualifying activities," Eggleston told the AASHTO Journal. "Now, states will be able to negotiate with federal regulators to qualify more types of work for exclusion from the rigorous reviews, when that work does not have a significant impact."
Eggleston said AASHTO had also sought another provision that lawmakers wrote into the FAST Act and was included in the May 31 final rule. It annually increased for inflation the MAP-21 monetary levels set for projects that receive exclusions based on their limited federal financial assistance.
Under MAP-21, infrastructure projects qualified for the exclusion if they received no more than $5 million in federal support, or were projects costing no more than $30 million in which the federal share was under 15 percent.
Now, that rule's inflation adjustment set the new funding-based exclusion thresholds starting June 1 at about $5.179 million and $31.078 million. It will update the figures each year in January, the regulation says.