GAO: Progress is Already Being Made on Permitting Reform, but More Data Is Needed

February 2, 2018

In 2005, 2012, and 2015, Congress enacted three rounds of new laws with the goal of decreasing project delivery time for transportation projects, most notably through streamlining requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA). Earlier this week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave a much-awaited update of how state departments of transportation are using these new legal authorities.

The GAO report was required under section 1323 of the 2012 MAP-21 law to give evaluation guidance for states with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Authority. The report examined what provisions provided opportunities to accelerate project timelines, how those provisions were used, and their estimated effects. The report included review fo the three most recent surface transportation acts (SAFETEA-LU in 2005, MAP-21 in 2012, and the FAST Act in 2015), a survey to all 50 state and Puerto Rico (with a 100% response rate), and carefully selected case studies.

Across SAFETEA-LU, MAP-21, and the FAST Act, the GAO identified 34 provisions that apply to highway projects and 29 that apply to transit projects.

Number of Project Delivery Provisions GAO Identified, Grouped by Category for Highway and Transit Projects

Category Highway Projects Transit Projects
Accelerated NEPA Review 12 10
Admin./Coordination Changes 17 17
NEPA Assignment 2 2
Advance Planning 3 0
Total Provisions: 34 29
Source: Table 1 in the GAO report. In the Accelerate NEPA Review category, 5 provisions apply to both highway and transit projects, 7 apply exclusively to highway projects, and 5 apply exclusively to transit projects.

Many of the provisions authorize new categorical exclusions, which allow the project leads produce a findings of no significant impact (FONSI) document instead of an environmental impact statement (EIS). Eliminating the comprehensive study necessary for the EIS gives projects with categorical exclusions a quicker and lesser amount of documentation needed for NEPA approval.

The GAO survey responses and interviews showed that in general, state DOTs found the provisions to assist in accelerating project delivery time, while the impacts on transit agencies seemed more unclear:

“For 11 of the 17 optional provisions included in our survey, a majority of state DOTs that indicated they used the provisions (users) reported that the provisions sped up project delivery”

The provision most widely acknowledged (90% of DOTs) as contributing to sped up project delivery times was the “Minor Impacts to Protected Public Land” provision that allows a bypass over the NEPA 4(f) requirement to for small projects such as bus stop installations next to parks.

“Minor Impacts to Protected Public Land” was the most used provision by transit agencies (used by 7 out of 11), but the use of the provision did not necessarily have an impact on project delivery time.

The effects of FHWA granting NEPA authority to state DOTS on project delivery time is also still uncertain. Of the six states given authority, few were able to provide enough information to measure time savings, and none measured in a standard, uniform manner allowing for comparison across states.

One of the major barriers the GAO ran into was that not all agencies measured project delivery timelines for all projects, making changes in delivery time very difficult to ascertain. Even when project timeframes were available, data were lacking for other factors that ought to be considered as controls such as project budgets, staffing levels, project type/complexity, and the amount of agency/justification coordination required.

The GAO was not the first study to note the lack of performance monitoring in project delivery time. The 2007 AASHTO report, Comparing State DOTs’ Construction Project Cost & Schedule Performance – 28 Best Practices from 9 States recommended measuring cost and timeliness throughout the design and implementation phases and had to pull 3 of 20 state DOTs out of the project timeline delivery assessment due to unusable data. In regards to tracking external factors as causes for delay, AASHTO also cited “unexpected sub-surface conditions” and “utility problems” alongside environmental issues as the most frequent reasons behind late project delivery.

While the provisions in SAFETEA-LU, MAP-21, and the FAST Act seem to have aided in accelerating transportation projects through the NEPA review process and decreasing overall project delivery time, more reliable data are needed.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill


Related Articles

DOT Establishes Multimodal Freight Office

December 1, 2023 - The U.S. Department of Transportation this week announced the establishment of its new Office of Multimodal...

Govt. Shutdown Now Postponed to Jan.-Feb.

November 17, 2023 - The earliest that the federal government will close for a lapse-of-appropriations shutdown is now January 19,...