October 25, 2017

Transportation Projects: Getting to Project Approval

Lancaster Interchanges

It may be 2017 but that state route that serves as your city’s main arterial roadway was probably built in the last century, during a time when the number of vehicles on it was far fewer. Many main thoroughfares are just not capable of handling today’s population. Traffic congestion is a problem faced by many metropolitan city planners and engineers. Something must be done to improve traffic flow of traffic, but when the path from problem to solution is bogged down under mounds of red tape, time is not a friend.


Most transportation projects—whether they involve roadways, intersections, interchanges, or bridges—often require approvals from multiple agencies, especially if a city is utilizing state and federal funding. “A lot of that red tape is based on the experience of being sued,” said Sylvia Vega, a Principal Environmental Planner at GPA Consulting. Vega spent more than 30 years as an environmental planner at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). In the state of California, transportation projects that involve state highways or freeways and are funded with matching federal dollars are subject to Caltrans approval.


A good consultant familiar with Caltrans can help the owner of a project (project owner) navigate the agency’s requirements and streamline the process, Vega said. “The environmental consultant should be familiar with Caltrans’ Local Assistance Program Manual, which offers steps for completing locally funded (local plus federal money) projects that require National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance.”


To get through the process quickly and efficiently, Vega advises project owners to follow the process from steps A to Z, and not to jump ahead. “By the time a project gets to the environmental stage, there’s other homework that should have been done,” she said.


Prior to initiating the environmental compliance process, consultants should confirm that the project is included in the Federal Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (FSTIP), which are federally approved projects developed by regional transportation planners in California. Project owners should adhere to the project’s description; any modifications should be coordinated immediately with the Caltrans Local Assistance Program coordinator. Once the project is initiated for NEPA compliance, a Preliminary Environmental Study (PES) form must be processed and approved by Caltrans to assess what technical studies, level of NEPA compliance, and any potential regulatory permits that might be required. Once the NEPA document and any environmental commitments are approved by Caltrans, the project can move ahead with the engineering studies for design and construction.


An often-overlooked issue that could potentially halt or stall a project is public reaction. “I’ve been on projects doing a field review and the person who lives next door has gotten really [upset],” Vega said. “When you don’t listen to the public, it actually prolongs your project.”


Sylvia Vega, a Principal Environmental Planner at GPA Consulting, is a practiced environmental planner specializing in California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Policy Act compliance for transportation infrastructure. Her 30-plus-year tenure at the California Department of Transportation helps her understand projects in a regional context and gives her the big-picture perspective necessary to effectively establish a critical path and ensure project success. GPA Consulting is particularly skilled in transportation projects and has ample experience working with the local, state, and federal agencies to prepare the requisite environmental documents meeting all regulatory requirements. See example highway and roadway projects here.