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Tennessee Environmental Procedures Manual

Chapter 6: Prepare Environmental Documentation

6.2 Environmental Assessment (EA)

6.2.1 EA Process

The preparation of an Environmental Assessment (EA) is intended to help FHWA and TDOT make the determination that the project would have no significant impacts and an EIS would not be needed, or that an EIS is needed. The EA documentation focuses on those resources or features that TDOT and FHWA have determined are likely to cause a significant impact. At any point in the EA process when it appears that the action is likely to have significant impacts on the environment, an EIS must be prepared.

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6.2.2 EA Content

The EA is intended to be a concise document that does not include detailed or lengthy descriptions of information that has been gathered. The technical studies that form the basis of the conclusions presented in the EA should be referenced in the EA, and copies of those studies are maintained in the project files by TDOT and FHWA. Once the EA is approved by FHWA, the technical studies with the exception of precise archaeological location data (written descriptions and maps) may be made available to the public or agencies that ask to review them.

The EA should incorporate good quality maps and/or exhibits and tables to help minimize the volume of documentation and to help present background data and summarize technical analyses.

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6.2.3 Sample EA Outline and Format

6.2.3.1 Required Elements

The Technical Advisory suggests the following format for an EA.

  • Cover Sheet. The cover page provides the name of the project, and identifies the state and federal lead agencies, cooperating agencies, and the deadline for submitting comments. See Appendix F [pdf 627 kb], for an example.
  • Purpose and Need for Action. This chapter should include a description of the proposed action, the length and termini of the project, the project background, its consistency with existing plans, and the transportation or other needs that the proposed action is intended to satisfy. See Section 2.3, "Defining the Project," for a discussion of specific elements of the purpose and need statement.
  • Alternatives. This chapter discusses the alternatives that are under consideration in the EA, including the no-action or no-build alternative, which serves as a baseline for comparison, and one or more build alternatives. The no-action or no-build alternative is a viable alternative that should be considered equally with all other alternatives. This section also identifies and briefly describes those alternatives that were considered initially and found not to be reasonable or feasible, and thus were dropped from further consideration.
  • Existing Conditions and Environmental Consequences. This chapter presents a brief description of the affected environment, sufficient to allow the reader to grasp the environmental setting, and describes the social, economic and environmental impacts and consequences of the proposed action. The level of analysis described should be sufficient to adequately address the impacts and appropriate mitigation measures, and address known and foreseeable public and agency concerns. The individual resource discussions focus on the technical areas that are described in Chapter 5, "Impacts Analysis," of this manual.
  • Comments and Coordination. This chapter describes the early and ongoing coordination activities, summarizes key issues and pertinent information received from the public and agencies, and lists those agencies and persons that were consulted.
  • Appendices. The appendix or appendices generally contain analytical information that substantiates an analysis that is important to the document, such as a Biological Assessment of threatened or endangered species or the Noise Impact Analysis.
  • Section 4(f) Evaluation. If a Section 4(f) resource is encountered in the project, a Section 4(f) Evaluation must be prepared and circulated. The draft Section 4(f) Evaluation is usually included in the EA document, either as a separate chapter or in an appendix. See Section 5.3.9.1 for information on the preparation and contents of the Section 4(f) evaluation.

TDOT requires four other specific components as a part of the EA document:

  • Signature Page. This page replicates information on the cover sheet, but also contains a line for the FHWA approval signature and date, and identifies the names, addresses and telephone numbers of the FHWA and TDOT contact persons for the document. This page is placed immediately inside the cover. (See Appendix F [pdf 627 kb] for a sample EA signature page.)
  • Summary. A brief summary is placed after the signature page to summarize the proposed action, the alternatives considered, and the primary benefits and adverse impacts. It states whether there is a Section 4(f) impact, and lists permits that may be necessary.

    The summary also includes a statement regarding the SAFETEA-LU statute of limitations on filing claims that challenge permits, licenses, or approvals issued by federal agencies for certain  transportation capital projects. The following paragraph is a sample of the language to be used:

    FHWA may publish a notice in the Federal Register, pursuant to 23 USC §139(l), indicating that one or more Federal agencies have taken final action on permits, licenses, or approvals for the subject transportation project. If such notice is published, claims seeking judicial review of those Federal agency actions will be barred unless such claims are filed within 180 days after the date of publication of the notice, or within such shorter time period as is specified in the Federal laws pursuant to which judicial review of the Federal agency action is allowed. If no notice is published, then the periods of time that otherwise are provided by the Federal laws governing such claims will apply.1
  • Environmental Commitments Green Paper. At the end of the Summary is a list of the environmental commitments that have been identified in the EA. Standard requirements of the TDOT Standard Specifications for Road and Bridge Construction should not be included in this section. This section should capture commitments that are specific or unique to this project, so that during subsequent project phases (Design, Right-of-Way, Construction, and Maintenance), these commitments will not be lost.   To increase the visibility of the environmental commitments section, it must be printed on green paper.
  • Coordination Appendix. Coordination letters received from agencies, organizations and the public as a result of initial and ongoing coordination are included in the appendix. In addition, evidence of Section 106 coordination is included in the appendix; this includes letters from TDOT and FHWA to agencies, organizations and American Indian tribes as well as their response letters.

Other information as appropriate may be included in the EA document. The specific organization of the EA may be determined on a project-by-project basis, but at a minimum must include the information shown above.

6.2.3.2 Mandatory EA Template

In 2009 the TDOT Environmental Division developed a template to be used in the preparation of all new EAs. The template established the minimum content and format requirements for the standardization of an EA document so that project reviewers, resource and regulatory agencies and the public would know where to consistently locate information in various environmental documents. Additionally, a standardized template will enable TDOT staff and consultants to understand what information is needed in the environmental document to ensure that the document is procedurally and scientifically defendable. The template incorporates the principles of the national initiative, "Improving the Quality of NEPA Documents." 

In conjunction with the EA template, TDOT has also developed a formatting guideline for use in preparing EAs.

6.2.3.3 Checklist

Table F-1 in Appendix F is a checklist that must be used when preparing and submitting EA documents for review prior to the document being submitted to the FHWA. A completed copy of the EA Checklist must be signed by the TDOT Project Manager or the Consultant Project Manager responsible for the EA. The completed checklist must be submitted to the TDOT Environmental Division NEPA Documentation Office Planner along with the EA document. This checklist contributes to TDOT's Environmental Document Quality Assurance Process, described later in Section 6.6.2.

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6.2.4 EA Approval Process

Once the EA document is drafted and reviewed by TDOT, an administrative draft of the EA must be submitted to the FHWA Division office and the TDOT Civil Rights Office for review. A copy of the Conceptual Stage Relocation Plan is included with this submittal. Cooperating agencies also are requested to review the administrative draft of the EA prior to final approval by FHWA. After the TDOT Environmental Division planner or consultant addresses the comments made by cooperating agencies and FHWA, the final EA is prepared and submitted to FHWA for approval and clearance.

The TESA Concurrence Point 3 occurs during this step (see Section 4.5, "Tennessee Environmental Streamlining Agreement," for a discussion of the concurrence points). The participating agencies are provided a preliminary EA for review and comment, and have 45 days from receipt of the document to provide a response (an additional 15-day period may be requested by a participating agency). The participating agencies are asked to provide concurrence on the adequacy of the preliminary EA.

Upon final approval, the appropriate FHWA Division Office representative signs the EA signature page. This signed page is then sent to the TDOT Environmental Division for signature by TDOT. The fully signed signature page is copied and included in the copies of the approved EA that are printed and made available for public inspection.

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6.2.5 Public and Agency Review and Comments

Circulation of the EA to agencies and the general public is not required by the NEPA or CEQ regulations; however, the EA must be made available for public inspection and, according to 23 CFR Part 771.119, a Notice of Availability (NOA) briefly describing the action and its impacts shall be sent to the affected units of federal, state, and local government. This NOA (which should be published in local newspapers) will identify the locations where the document can be reviewed. In addition to having copies at TDOT's main office and regional office, copies are placed in the public libraries in the county (or counties) where the proposed project would occur. TDOT may also place electronic versions of the EAs on the TDOT website.

While federal regulations do not require a public hearing for an EA, TDOT's general practice is to hold a public hearing. Whether or not a public hearing is held, 23 CFR 771.119 requires that comments be accepted during the 30-day period following the date that the EA is made available (the date of the NOA). TDOT's approved public involvement procedures, available at http://www.tdot.state.tn.us/documents/pip.pdf, describe specific requirements for publishing notices of hearings and conducting the hearings.

When a public hearing is held, 23 CFR 771.119(e) requires that at least 15 days notice be provided in advance of the hearing. The notice of the hearing must be advertised in local newspapers, and the advertisement must state where the EA can be obtained or reviewed. The 30-day time frame for public comments from the date of the NOA also applies. TDOT permits written public comments to be sent in during the 21-day period following the public hearing, although TDOT has the flexibility to extend the time period for receipt of comments on a project-by-project basis, if warranted.

The EA is available for review at the public hearing. TDOT policy provides for one or more court reporters to be present at public hearings to record public comments. Written comments submitted at the hearing or during the comment period are incorporated into a public hearing transcript, which is made available for public review in the same locations where copies of the EA are placed.

After the public/agency comment period is closed, the TDOT Environmental Division planner or a consultant prepares a public comment summary. The comment summary includes comments from the public hearing(s) and those submitted in writing. TDOT provides a copy of the hearing summary, including the public hearing transcript(s), to FHWA.

The TDOT Environmental Division planner coordinates with appropriate staff within Environmental Division and other divisions to determine how the comments will be resolved. The planner then prepares a response to each comment or category of comments. A summary of the comments and how the comments were resolved will be included in the FONSI, if there are no significant impacts. If significant impacts have been identified, an EIS must be prepared.

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6.2.6 Selection of the Preferred Alternative

Agency input and public comments are considered by TDOT in the selection of the preferred alternative to be carried forward. The EA may have addressed only the no-build and a build alternative, in which case TDOT must make only one decision, whether or not to proceed with the proposed action. If the EA included evaluation of a Transportation System Management (TSM) alternative and/or more than one build alternative, then the decision is more complicated. TDOT will first make the decision whether to build or not build. If the decision is to build, then TDOT must evaluate and determine which of the TSM or build alternatives will be the preferred alternative.

The TESA Concurrence Point 4 occurs during this step (see Section 4.5, "Tennessee Environmental Streamlining Agreement," for a discussion of the concurrence points). Based on output from Concurrence Point 3, along with any issues, concerns and/or opportunities identified during the public hearings, the Environmental Division planner prepares and forwards to the TESA participating agencies a Preferred Alternative and Mitigation Package. The package may include the following information:

  • Preferred Alternative and Mitigation Summary that describes the various elements of the preferred alternative, the various elements of the proposed mitigation, and includes a map locating the elements of the preferred alternative and mitigation;
  • Narrative describing the various elements of the preferred alternative;
  • Rationale for recommending the preferred alternative; and
  • Summary of major public and agency issues and how they were addressed.

The participating agencies are asked to review and concur with the proposed preferred alternative and preliminary mitigation within 45 days of their receipt of the package (a participating agency has the option to request an additional 15 days for review). Based on the output of Concurrence Point 4, the TDOT Environmental Division planner either prepares a FONSI or initiates an EIS if significant impacts are identified.

Footnotes

1 For more information, see FHWA Memorandum dated December 1, 2005, Interim Guidance on the Use of 23 USC §139(1) Limitation on Claims Notices, which is found at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/hep/intgui_limclms.htm.

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