Planning and Environmental Linkages


What Is Planning and Environmental Linkages (PEL)?

Planning and environmental linkages is a study process typically used to identify transportation issues and environmental concerns in a large corridor, or in a specific location. It is generally conducted before any project construction funding is identified, and before specific problems and solutions are known.

Before a PEL study is conducted, a scoping process must occur to determine whether to do a PEL study. The team must determine why the study is being conducted, and what question(s) must be addressed.

Planning Decisions & Analyses

PEL studies can be used to make planning decisions, such as:

  • if tolling or other financial measures are necessary;
  • how to assist in modal choices;
  • creating a basic description of the environmental setting;
  • methodologies for analysis; and
  • identifing programmatic-level mitigation for potential impacts most effectively addressed at a regional or state level.

A PEL study can also be used for planning analyses, such as:

  • travel demands;
  • regional development and growth;
  • local land use analysis;
  • population and employment analysis;
  • documenting natural and built environmental conditions; and
  • identifying resources of concern and potential cumulative effects.

These planning decisions and planning analyses are used to identify future projects, develop the purpose and need for a project, determine logical termini, and/or develop and refine a range of alternatives.

Other Uses

The PEL process can also discover political needs and desires when a corridor crosses multiple jurisdictions, or it can simply be used as a tool to give a context of an area without intensive studies being performed.

In addition to identifying corridor issues and potential projects, PEL studies can be used as a project prioritization tool. For example, a PEL study for a corridor could result in the identification of multiple potential projects (i.e., capacity improvements for a shorter length of the corridor, and intersection improvements). Those can then be prioritized for implementation.

Required Outcomes

PEL studies must be able to link planning to environmental issues and result in useful information that can be carried forward into the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. These studies must address some aspects of NEPA to be valid for incorporation into a future NEPA analysis (although the PEL study should cost less and take less time than a NEPA process).

The PEL study should include:

  • a comprehensive list of specific project goals;
  • a detailed corridor description that identifies issues and constraints; and
  • stakeholder involvement, including public and agency outreach.

This should occur before any alternatives are developed. At the conclusion of the PEL study for a highway project, a letter will be provided that acknowledges the completion of the study and that it was undertaken in a manner consistent with Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) PEL guidance. If the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is leading the PEL, it should be consulted about its PEL acceptance process.

Below is a flowchart displaying the PEL process and showing the four FHWA concurrence points that are required during the study.

PEL image

The adoption and use of a PEL study in the NEPA process is subject to a determination by the FHWA—with the concurrence of other stakeholder agencies—that several specific conditions have been met. These conditions are listed in Section 1310, "Integration of Planning and Environmental Review," part (d) of the current surface transportation legislation (MAP-21).

One condition that specifically needs to be considered when determining whether to do a PEL is that a PEL study expires after five years. If NEPA does not begin within five years from the conclusion of the PEL study, the information from the study cannot be taken directly into NEPA. 

What is a Planning and Environmental Linkages Study?

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