Special Report: Expediting a Critical Transportation Project
A highway interchange project in New Jersey highlights the environmental permitting and planning processes that must happen before the first spade of dirt is overturned.
By Ileana A. Ivanciu, PG, M.SAME
One of the most congested interchanges in the Mid-Atlantic region, the I-295/I-76/Route 42 interchange in Camden County, N.J., does not currently connect directly with I-295 for through traffic. Reconstruction is expected to be completed in 2017.
PHOTOS COURTESY DEWBERRY
Our nation’s surface transportation infrastructure needs work. Past investments are deteriorating. As they do, safety conditions decline, congestion worsens and economic development is stunted. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infrastructure estimates a $930 billion five-year investment required for bridges and roads. It projects a $549.5 billion shortfall.
As the federal government works to appropriate funds to slow or reverse deterioration, public and private sector experts agree that the process for getting transportation improvements planned, designed, constructed and maintained needs to change. The project delivery process must be simplified so that the precious funds appropriated are channeled to results, rather than lost to red tape.
The lengthy environmental review process in particular has come under scrutiny—including the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). That scrutiny is generating new programs and legislation aimed at improving processes.
INITIATIVES FORGE PROGRESS
FHWA’s Every Day Counts (EDC) initiative emphasizes working more efficiently and calling for quicker environmental reviews, while maintaining the integrity of the process and the natural resources it intends to protect. FHWA Administrator Victor Mendez states: “EDC is designed to identify and deploy innovation aimed at shortening project delivery, enhancing the safety of our roadways, and protecting the environment.”
One of the elements in EDC’s Shortening Project Delivery Toolkit is Planning and Environmental Linkages. This encourages the use of information developed in early transportation planning studies to inform the NEPA process, yielding less duplication of effort and more efficient projectlevel decisions.
The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), the highway funding authorization signed into law July 6, 2012, brings the hammer down on environmental review periods with provisions to streamline the environmental process.
Policies legislated through MAP-21 include integrating planning and environmental reviews; using programmatic approaches where possible; expanding the types of projects that are categorically excluded (requiring only limited environmental review); consolidating environmental documents; and accelerating environmental approvals supported by an issue resolution process, technical assistance for stalled projects, and penalties for delayed decisions.
Significant change in the environmental review process will need more than policy shifts to fundamentally change the pace of project development. Recent success stories prove that environmental resource agencies and transportation practitioners need to focus on the issues that really matter and be willing to yield on those issues that may be desirable but will end up being cost prohibitive. Flexibility and creativity will go a long way toward moving projects through environmental review.
The Transportation Research Board (TRB), a division of the National Research Council aimed at promoting innovation and progress in transportation through research, also is focusing its efforts on simplifying and shortening environmental review. At the 92nd TRB Annual Meeting, being held Jan. 13–17, 2013 in Washington, D.C., attendees will discuss a wide range of strategies to expedite environmental review—from public involvement to geospatial solutions. And when the TRB Environmental Analysis Committee convenes its summer workshop in New Jersey in July, the agenda will include developing and assessing solutions to expedite the environmental review process.
ROAD TO SOLUTIONS
A highway project likely to factor into these discussions is the I-295/I-76/New Jersey Route 42 interchange in Camden County, N.J. The purpose of this reconstruction is to improve safety and reduce traffic congestion on one of the most congested interchanges in the state. In March 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved the estimated $900 million project. But getting that funding had been contingent on completing approved environmental studies.
Funding for the $900 million I-295/I-76/NJ Route 42 interchange was contingent on completing approved environmental studies.
The New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) and its lead consultant, Dewberry, equated the selected roadway design to “threading a needle through precious resources.”
The team recognized that the interchange reconstruction would face significant environmental hurdles, including potential impacts to fragile wetlands and a sensitive stream, valuable cultural resources and the community. Approvals and permits would be required from a lengthy list of agencies. Permitting and environmental documentation would include wetlands delineation, mitigation planning and permitting. The review would comprise soil erosion plans; land use regulation and planning; waterfront development permitting; flood hazard areas; stormwater management; riparian rights, deeds and titles; and reforestation plans pursuant to the state’s No Net Loss Reforestation Act.
After studying streamlining processes that had been implemented elsewhere, NJDOT and its consultant developed a process to move the project through regulatory review and permitting. The formal streamlining program tightened time frames and committed decision makers to progress. NJDOT and Dewberry worked with agencies to select the appropriate methodology, verify field data, review results and make decisions as work progressed. Consensus points were built into the program and all parties were required to refrain from re-opening the agreed-upon issues—unless new and significant data were generated.
The turnover of agency representatives is another challenge such complex highway projects can face. New personnel may arrive without an understanding of the issues from all the stakeholders who have already shared their views. While agency representatives on the I-295/I-76/Route 42 Interchange did change over time, in this instance the same commitment to success never wavered.
The project team knew that maximizing interagency coordination would only take them so far. The streamlining program also merged NEPA efforts with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Section 404 Permitting using one Environmental Impact Statement, which saved time and money and the process eliminated duplication of effort. USACE adopted the conceptual Section 404 permit application early, during the NEPA phase.
RECOGNIZING THE PROCESS
Regulators (including USACE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) applauded the approach and have expressed desire to implement the streamlining program on similar future transportation projects.
In 2011, the National Association of Environmental Professionals recognized the project with its Environmental Excellence Award for Planning Integration. However, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Barry J. Seymour in a January 2008 letter to FHWA and NJDOT may summarize the process best.
Wrote Seymour: “This project charted new territory in the New Jersey portion of our region, and possibly the state, by bringing together planners, engineers, resource and permit agency representatives early and often as a means of producing an environmental document and a preferred alternative in a fully collaborative effort. The viewpoints of various disciplines were sought much earlier in the process than is typical. This streamlining of the process in no way diminished the consideration of natural and human resources. Nor did it allow engineering considerations to advance in a vacuum. On the contrary, the early consideration of all of these perspectives has led to a very balanced consideration of all resources and means of addressing the purpose and need of this improvement project.”
What the end-user often sees as the project timeline is the visible work underway— the ground being excavated, the concrete set, the columns erected. And reconstruction of the I-295/I-76/Route 42 interchange is expected to be completed in 2017.
Yet there is so much more that must go in to the planning, permitting and authorization before any such work can ever take place. It’s a long process, but with hopefully a much longer reward.
Ileana A. Ivanciu, PG, M.SAME, is VP, Environmental Services Branch Manager, Dewberry; 973-576-0150, or iivanciu@ dewberry.com.