Public transportation supports the economic vitality of the nation’s urban centers and is therefore generally considered to be environmentally desirable. Nevertheless, major transit construction projects, like any construction, can disrupt a community and its natural resources. Recognizing that activities worthy of Federal support – including transit construction -- can also have adverse consequences, Congress has over the years enacted numerous laws to protect communities and their natural resources. Chief among these laws is the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) that established a national policy of preserving and enhancing the human environment for future generations while meeting the needs including the transportation needs, of the present generation.
The regulations of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) implementing NEPA ensure that information on the social and environmental impacts of any federally funded action is available to public officials and citizens before decisions are made and before actions are taken. NEPA regulations direct Federal agencies to integrate into their planning and decisionmaking the natural and social sciences, environmental amenities and values, and the design arts along with the necessary engineering and economic considerations. The objective is to balance infrastructure development, economic prosperity, health and environmental protection, community and neighborhood preservation, and quality of life.
In addition to NEPA, the provisions of other statutes, regulations and executive orders affect the decisionmaking on federally assisted transportation projects. These mandates and considerations cover such concerns as air and water quality, historic preservation, parklands protection, habitat preservation, civil rights and social burdens of transportation investments. FTA uses the NEPA process as the overarching umbrella under which the mandates and considerations of all laws affecting transit project development are considered.
To this end, FTA and the transit agencies seeking FTA financial assistance work with other Federal agencies (particularly those whose missions and expertise lie in the protection of a particular resource), with affected State, local and tribal governments, with public and private organizations, and with the general public to develop transit projects that balance competing transportation, social, economic, and environmental goals. The NEPA process provides a forum for interested agencies and the public to learn about proposed transportation actions and to react to those proposals.
The NEPA process begins far earlier than the design and technical analysis of a particular project. Metropolitan and statewide transportation planning identifies transit needs and mobility problems and proposes solutions that reflect consideration of broad socioeconomic and environmental factors (such as regional air quality). If State or local agencies expect to seek FTA funding assistance for implementation of a resulting project, FTA must gauge the appropriate level of assessment and review of environmental impacts. From past experience with a wide variety of transit projects, FTA has identified many types of projects that can be processed with minimal or no environmental review. However, major proposed actions involving substantial new construction with off-site or long-term impacts usually merit a detailed review that is done with appropriate public involvement and documented in a formal environmental impact statement.
The more detailed NEPA reviews are grounded on the notion that alternative solutions are available for meeting identified transportation needs. The formal review process requires the transit agency to develop and evaluate a range of reasonable alternatives, in addition to the proposed project, in order to determine the best option for addressing transportation problems, respecting the community, and protecting the environment. When highway or multimodal solutions are viable options in addition to transit solutions, FTA and the transit agency cooperate with FHWA and the state DOT in conducting the NEPA review. If a transit project proposed for FTA New Start funding is emerges as the preferred alternative, FTA coordinates the later stages of the NEPA review process with the New Starts evaluation procedures described above.