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Environmental Templates - Big Step Forward

By Tracy Nguyen, CDOT Office of Process Improvement Intern; and Vanessa Henderson, CDOT Division of Transportation Development
Posted: February 10, 2015

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Environmental Templates

The recent development of an Environmental Assessment (EA) Template has saved a significant amount of time – and money – for some CDOT transportation projects.  It has also gabbed the attention of folks in Colorado and around the nation.

In an effort to improve the quality of environmental documents, CDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) worked together to develop an innovative EA Template.  EAs are completed for projects when the significance of environmental impacts is unknown.  This EA Template reduces the size of EA documents and improves readability for stakeholders, including agencies and the public.  Shorter, more understandable documents generally mean shorter review times, which can allow transportation projects to progress more quickly through the Project Development process.  A “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) Template was also developed as the decision document for the EA. 

“The EA Template was developed as a way to get back to the intent of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is to ‘count what counts’ and to focus on the issues that influence decision-making,” noted Vanessa Henderson, CDOT Environmental Policy & Biological Resources Section Manager, one of the key players in the new template.  “EAs can be very difficult for the public to understand and the EA Template is set up to be reader-friendly by limiting technical jargon and providing the information in a reader-friendly format by using questions and answers and tables.” 

Henderson and Stephanie Gibson, Environmental Manager at FHWA’s Colorado Division, worked together to develop a template to meet regulatory requirements while maintaining a reader-friendly format.  With the assistance of the CDOT transportation project teams for the State Highway 9 Iron Springs project and the US 50 West project, Vanessa and Stephanie were able to pilot test the preliminary template, which helped them modify the templates to produce the best templates possible. 

Chuck Attardo, the Planning and Environmental Manager for CDOT’s Region 1, estimates that the streamlined document saved 4 months on the schedule for the State Highway 9 Iron Springs project, and also saved between $40,000 to $80,000 for that project.   

Three projects have used the EA and FONSI Templates as of early January 2015: 

  • SH 9 Iron Springs at Breckenridge, previous CDOT Region 1 (now Region 3);
  • US 50 West from Purcell to Wills in Pueblo West, CDOT Region 2; and
  • Federal Boulevard between 7th and Howard in Denver, CDOT Region 1. 

On these three projects, EA document size has been reduced by approximately 75%, averaging 57 pages as compared to an average of 162 pages for traditional EAs completed over the past four years. 

For the US 50 West and Federal Boulevard projects, this new format has reduced the amount of time needed to write the main EA document.  Also, the average length of time from project start to the publication of the documents has been reduced from an average of 49 months to 12.5 months – an improvement of approximately 75%.  

This new EA Template is intended to be used for EAs that analyze one build alternative.  When multiple build alternatives need to be analyzed, a more traditional EA format may need to be used.  The FONSI Template may be used by projects that used the EA Template as well as projects using a more traditional EA format. 

“One of the advantages of this template is that it can be modified and adjusted to meet the needs of any project,” Henderson said.  “No two projects are exactly the same, so having this flexibility is important.” 

A similar template was also developed for Documented Categorical Exclusion (CatEx) documents and several projects are in the process of using that template, but none have been completed yet. CatExs are completed for projects that do not involve significant environmental impacts based on past experience with similar projects.  The Documented CatExs were starting to get longer and more complex, so the template is intended to help focus those as well to make them shorter and more reader-friendly. 

There is another benefit besides reduced complexity and reduced review times: ease of understanding for the general public. Improving transparency and ease of comprehension is the goal of any good government body and the new templates help make that possible for everyone involved in the process.   The results have been encouraging and the new templates are likely to be much further utilized in the future. 

The Documented CatEx, EA, and FONSI Templates are available on CDOT’s external website:  Click here to view forms

These efforts to reduce the size of required environmental assessment documents have also been recognized in the Federal Highway Administration’s "Every Day Counts” newsletter, Dec. 5, 2014, edition.  Feedback from template users, specifically the FHWA, CDOT employees, City and County of Denver, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and consults, has been positive, Henderson reports.  News that the templates are available is spreading nationally. 

“This program is definitely on track,” noted CDOT Process Improvement Director Gary Vansuch.  “It’s great to see this recognition for the pilot program, and it’s great to see that the template is working as intended to make this process more effective, efficient, and elegant.  My congratulations go to everyone involved!”

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