National Environmental Policy Act

What Is NEPA?

The primary law governing the Federal Transit Administrationís (FTA) environmental protection process is the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.), as amended. Many different federal laws, rules, and regulations govern environmental review of federally assisted mass transportation projects. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) establishes an umbrella process for coordinating compliance with each law through the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for all major federal actions significantly affecting the environment. Other special purpose statutes and procedures may apply as well, depending on specific circumstances, e.g., protective measures for historic properties, wetlands, floodplains, etc. If related environmental review requirements apply, they are to be undertaken as part of the NEPA compliance process.

NEPA establishes protection of the environment as a national priority and mandates that environmental impacts must be considered before any federal action likely to significantly affect the environment is undertaken. The Act has four primary purposes: 1) to declare a national environmental policy; 2) to promote efforts to protect the environment; 3) to improve national understanding of environmental issues; and 4) to establish the Council on Environmental Quality.

The "action-forcing" provisions of NEPA are contained in Sec. 102 C (42 U.S.C. 4332). This section includes three primary mandates:

  1. To the extent possible, policies, regulations, and laws of the federal government must be interpreted and administered in accordance with NEPA.
  2. Federal agencies must use an interdisciplinary approach in planning and decision making that impacts the human and natural environment; and
  3. The preparation of an EIS is required on all major federal actions that may significantly affect the human or natural environment.

The application of NEPA to mass transportation projects is reinforced in the federal surface transportation statutes (23 U.S.C. Highways and 49 U.S.C. Transportation), that require the Secretary of Transportation to ensure NEPA mandates have been met before approving applications for federal financial assistance.

Complying With NEPA

The process for complying with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and federal surface transportation statutes is defined in the joint Federal Highway Administration/Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Environmental Impact and Related Procedures (23 C.F.R 771). The regulation sets forth the agencies' policy of combining all environmental analyses and reviews into a single process. It defines the roles and responsibilities of FTA and its grant applicants in preparing documents, and in managing the environmental process within the various project development phases. The principle component of this rule is as follows:

Class of Action Determination (23 C.F.R 771.115): Applicants intending to apply for Federal transit funding should notify FTA at the time a project concept is identified. Once the applicant has furnished sufficient information and documentation, FTA will advise the applicant of the probable class of action and the related level of documentation required in the NEPA process. There are three classes of action:

  1. Categorical Exclusions (23 C.F.R 771.117): Categorical Exclusions (CEs) are granted for actions that do not individually or cumulatively involve significant social, economic or environmental impacts. The projects listed in 23 C.F.R 771.117 require little or no construction and involve minimal or no effects off-site. The regulation gives a list of the types of projects that are categorically excluded. Once FTA has determined that a CE applies, it may act on the application for financial assistance.
  2. Environmental Assessments (23 C.F.R 771.119): FTA may require an applicant for financial assistance to prepare an Environmental Assessment (EA) when the significance of the environmental impact is not clearly established. An EA can result in either a Finding of No Significant Impact (23 C.F.R. 771.121) requiring no further environmental evaluation, or identification of potentially significant impacts requiring the applicant to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement.
  3. Environmental Impact Statements (23 C.F.R 771.123 et seq.): Depending on the nature of the proposed project, FTA may immediately require applicants to develop an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), or request an EIS based on the outcome of an EA. In either case, an EIS requires that a substantial technical analysis and public review process be conducted to evaluate project alternatives, identify potential social, economic and environmental impacts of the project, and designate methods to avoid or mitigate these impacts. Successful completion of an EIS results in FTA signing a Record of Decision (ROD). Once FTA has signed a ROD, the applicant can proceed with the project having complied with NEPA and FTA may act on the application for federal assistance.

NEPA-Related Federal Laws, Regulations, Orders & Guidance

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969
(42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.)

Federal law that mandates the consideration of environmental impacts before any federal action likely to significantly affect the environment is undertaken and establishes the Environmental Impact Statement process.

Regulations for Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (40 C.F.R 1500-1508)

Regulation promulgated by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to provide guidance to federal agencies in implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Environmental Impact and Related Procedures (23 C.F.R 771).

Federal regulation promulgated by the US Department of Transportation to implement the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) with respect to transit and highway projects. The regulations define the specific procedures that must be followed by applicants for federal transportation funding in order to meet NEPA requirements and qualify for federal funds.

Protection and Enhancement of Environmental Quality, Executive Order 11514, as amended by Executive Order 11991 (PDF)

Executive Order clarifying the role of the CEQ and identifying the role of federal agencies in implementing and enforcing NEPA.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Guidance on Scoping, Council on Environmental Quality

Guidance defining scoping, a process intended to get the lead and cooperating agencies and other interested groups together early in the project development process to determine the scope of the issues to be addressed, and identify important issues related to the proposed action.

NEPA Guidance: 40 Questions

Guidance issued by CEQ to address frequently asked questions concerning NEPA implementation.

NEPA Background and Implementation (PDF)

Report from the Library of Congressional Research Service on NEPA Background and Implementation

NEPA Congressional White Paper (PDF)

Submitted to Congress in 1968 to discuss a national policy for the environment.

Senate Report No. 91-296 (MS Word)

Submitted in 1969 as a recommendation that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) be passed.

Executive Order 11514 (PDF)

From the National U.S. Archives & Records Administration. Outlines policy for the protection and enhancement of environmental quality.

Categories of Legal Requirements (MS Word)

A listing of different categories of law and the authorities they potentially correspond to.

NEPA Primer (PDF)

Article written in 1989 that discusses and analyzes NEPA up until that point.

Keys to Efficient Development, Key 1 (PDF)

Discussion on how to develop useful environmental documents in an efficient manner.

Keys to Efficient Development, Key 3 (PDF)

Discussion on how to develop useful environmental documents in an efficient manner.

AASHTO Practitioner's Handbook (PDF)

Intended to help transportation planners and NEPA practitioners improve linkages between the planning and NEPA processes, while also complying with recent legislative changes.

Categorical Exclusion Worksheet (PDF)

To assist FTA Region 10 sponsoring agencies in gathering and organizing materials for potential categorially excluded actions in compliance with NEPA.

Draft Coordination Plan (PDF)

Sample Coordination Plan to be used as a reference.

Guidance Regarding NEPA Regulations

Guidance issued by CEQ to clarify NEPA implementation regulations.

Considering Cumulative Effects
Under the National Environmental Policy Act

Guidance issued by CEQ on methodologies for addressing cumulative impacts in the NEPA processes.

Federal Environmental Laws and Executive Orders Applicable to the Development and Review of Transportation Infrastructure Projects (Federal Register notice, May 6, 2004)

Other Useful NEPA Links