Planning and Environmental Linkages

All federally funded actions are required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law that requires that the consequences of a federal action are evaluated and measures to protect, restore and enhance the environment are given appropriate consideration in decisions regarding the action. In the past, long-range transportation planning studies have often ignored the requirements of NEPA, rendering the resulting planning decisions invalid for use in later NEPA studies. Additionally, transportation planners and NEPA practitioners have recognized that evaluating consequences early in the planning process offers the best opportunity to make informed decisions that minimize environmental impacts during the identification of alternative solutions. To better connect long-range planning with NEPA the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) has initiated the Planning and Environmental Linkages (PEL) process. PEL allows the following types of long-range planning and environmental analysis to inform the preparation of subsequent NEPA documents:

  • Project purpose and need, including planning goals
  • Public and stakeholder involvement
  • Description of the environmental setting
  • Identification of general travel modes
  • Identification of a reasonable range of alternatives
  • Preliminary screening of alternatives and elimination of unreasonable alternatives
  • Recommendations for future studies, including mitigation strategies

The extent of a planning study may vary widely based on the type of project, the time horizon and the resources available to prepare the study. Some studies may only develop a project purpose and need and engage in public and stakeholder involvement. The full PEL process applies primarily to corridor and subarea planning. The weight that can be given to long-range planning decisions in subsequent NEPA studies depends on the level of analysis performed, whether the data remains relevant and how well the process and decisions were documented. Changes in project needs, growth patterns and development, and unseen impacts can also affect the validity of long-range planning decisions. For these reasons, there is no guarantee that what is decided by state and local entities in corridor/subarea planning will be accepted by the stakeholders or the public during NEPA. However, the PEL process enables potential problems to be addressed early, and many times early decisions and coordination can be directly incorporated into the NEPA process.