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.
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.
The Technical Advisory suggests the following format for an EA.
TDOT requires four other specific components as a part of the EA document:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.tn.gov/tdot/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.
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:
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.
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.