TESTIMONY OF STEVEN A. HERMAN
STEVEN A. HERMAN
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR FOR ENFORCEMENT
AND COMPLIANCE ASSURANCE
U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
SUBCOMMITTEE ON GROUND TRANSPORTATION
COMMITTEE ON TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
July 27, 1999
Good afternoon; I am pleased to be here today to discuss Section 1309 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) and the EPA's efforts to make streamlining an everyday part of doing business. TEA-21 is the largest public works legislation in the history of this country; Section 1309, the environmental streamlining provisions, requires DOT along with EPA and other federal agencies to integrate environmental responsibilities with transportation goals. Effective environmental streamlining should signify to the public a commitment at the national, state, local levels to better integrate both planning and project-specific requirements into a single continuous process. It does not serve as justification to lessen our commitment to meeting the substantive or procedural requirements of existing statutory authorities. Through an increased attempt to cross-walk among these statutory responsibilities and earlier involvement, state, tribal, local and federal stakeholders can offer savings in both time and money; better avoidance of environmentally degrading alternatives; and, creative transportation solutions which are better for America.
EPA views Section 1309 as an affirmation of the direction in which we were headed with our state and federal partners under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). Under ISTEA, EPA worked with our federal and state partners to integrate the requirements of the Clean Water Act's Section 404 and NEPA to make the overall project process flow more smoothly. With Section 1309, Congress has given the Department of Transportation, and other agencies, the impetus to look at additional aspects of environmental review and permitting to see what efficiencies can be gained. It reaffirms the role of the Council on Environmental Quality and provides states an opportunity to get all parties involved earlier and more intimately in the process when it will help them achieve streamlining.
One of the reasons EPA is supportive of Section 1309 and DOT's efforts to implement it, is that it allows us to concentrate our collective resources on the transportation projects which potentially have a profound impact on the environment. We agree that an integrated process, whether it is an overarching process or one created for one specific project, enables all involved to identify transportation solutions which are least damaging to the environment and help people get where they need to go. This means getting involved as early as is practical for that state and community, because, from our experience, we can say that the further along a project is, the more difficult and expensive it can be to retool plans, which in turn, can lead to position gridlock as well as traffic gridlock.
EPA has renewed our commitment to streamlining and has worked steadily to meet the goals laid out by TEA-21. We have established transportation teams in each of our ten regional offices which meet as needed to disseminate information, plan for specific activities and help facilitate sessions with our state and federal partners. This past January, Regional Administrator Mike McCabe co-hosted a TEA-21 summit in Philadelphia for the mid-Atlantic states to continue to build on the streamlining momentum of the past and to look to the future of transportation in one of the more heavily traveled parts of the nation. EPA helped to bring together the state Secretaries of Transportation and state environmental agencies with regional Federal officials. As a result, the state and federal agencies signed a cooperative agreement to work on timely cost-effective and environmentally sound transportation solutions for the region. They have also set up a Transportation and Environment Team, which includes representatives from metropolitan planning organizations, to develop specific streamlining procedures scheduled to be in place by mid-October. This region has given us a model we hope to reproduce elsewhere in the country. In fact, we are also looking forward to holding a similar session in Texas this coming September.
At the national level, we held a training session for all EPA staff involved in transportation activities last October in Chicago which addressed multiple sections of TEA-21 and gave us an opportunity to flesh out potential areas for streamlining and to explore the use of pilot projects to try out some of our ideas. We are also closely coordinating among our national programs and regional offices to support TEA-21 implementation.
We have met with representatives from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) on several occasions since passage of TEA-21, and EPA was pleased to be invited to their environmental session this spring. AASHTO gave state transportation officials, DOT and EPA staff the opportunity to better understand our various perspectives, constraints and common ground. We hope to build upon this productive relationship well into the next century and are exploring opportunities to collaborate further on joint pilots with AASHTO and DOT.
EPA participates regularly in DOT-led meetings at the federal level and was pleased to join with DOT in issuing a letter signed by Secretary Slater and Administrator Browner outlining the mutual commitment between our two agencies to work together not just on streamlining, but across the board. With respect to streamlining, EPA participated in the development of DOT's National MOU on Environmental Streamlining and signed it on July 1, 1999, to underscore that mutual commitment.
Will a streamlined process solve all project delays? Absolutely not. Often environmental issues are not the real stumbling block when a project is delayed. Rather, local land use debates or clashes of competing special interests can derail or unduly delay projects. Better planning and meaningful public involvement must go hand in hand with streamlining environmental reviews if we are to avoid litigation and costly delays of transportation projects.
I emphasize, however, as committed as EPA is to environmental streamlining, we cannot compromise our responsibilities under the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act to conduct thorough reviews of significant projects to ensure that environmental impacts are thoroughly considered. As you know, Congress gave EPA the responsibility to comment on the potential impacts of all major federal actions to public health, welfare, and environmental quality. One of the significant ways in which EPA carries out that responsibility is to review and comment on environmental impact statements (EIS) published by the other federal agencies in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In order to carry out EPA's responsibility in a consistent manner, EPA developed and uses a rating system for draft and supplemental draft EISs. This system rates a document both on its potential impacts as well as the adequacy of the documentation itself. The adequacy of the document is reviewed to see if the agency disclosed all significant potential environmental impacts to the public in a manner which allows an informed decision to be made. Except in rare cases, EPA only refers proposed actions to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the agency which oversees implementation of the NEPA, when EISs have received the most adverse EPA ratings of either "environmentally unsatisfactory" or "inadequate" information or both.
As my colleague from DOT has testified, only 2.4% of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) projects for 1998 required EISs. From EPA's perspective 8 out of 10 highway projects with EISs proceed from planning to a Record of Decision expeditiously. These are the projects which have few environmental impacts because FHWA and the relevant state department of transportation, working with citizens as well as local, state and other federal agencies, including EPA, have been able to redesign or otherwise mitigate adverse environmental impacts during the development of the draft EIS. Typically, these projects receive few, if any, negative EPA comments and move into the construction phase according to the priorities of the state and local governments.
The remainder do require more of our professional attention and can be more contentious. These are the projects which we believe require additional work to avoid or minimize impacts to the environment but which we believe in most cases can meet the transportation needs as well as the environmental goals of the community with that additional work. The earlier we and the other federal and state environmental agencies are able to provide that feedback to DOT and the state, the fewer the delays will be later either because of permitting decisions or because of litigation.
There are a very few projects, the ones which receive ratings of "environmentally unsatisfactory" or "inadequate" information, which tend to attract the most attention and, at times, have led to what I believe is an unfair characterization of EPA's role in the process. These are the projects which we believe must not proceed as proposed. But, since we so rarely take such a stand, these projects attract attention.
For illustrative purposes, EPA examined its tracking data for the previous 5 calendar years (1994 through 1998) for FHWA draft and supplemental draft EISs. The FHWA EISs represent the majority of all transportation projects reviewed by EPA. During the years 1994-1998, EPA staff reviewed a total of 252 draft or supplemental draft environmental impact statements for proposed highway projects. Of those 252, EPA rated 2 as "environmentally unsatisfactory" because the Agency believed the environmental impacts were of sufficient magnitude that the project should not proceed as proposed, and rated 4 as "inadequate" for not presenting enough information so the reviewer could assess the significance of the potential environmental impacts of the proposed action or had identified reasonably available alternatives. All 6 await final FHWA determination. EPA has not referred any FHWA project to the CEQ during this time period.
Does this mean EPA will have to be intimately involved with every transportation decision made by communities and their state and local officials in order to accomplish both the transportation and environmental goals laid out by Congress? Absolutely not. State and local governments have and will continue to have tremendous opportunities to integrate environmental considerations into their transportation plans. They now also have an opportunity to facilitate our participation on a stepped up basis when a project or projects warrant it. State departments of transportation, under TEA-21, may use federal transportation funds for positions in federal agencies to expedite environmental reviews.
We have four examples of states which are pursuing this approach. After our original streamlining efforts in our mid-Atlantic region, the state of Pennsylvania asked EPA to devote a staff person to work solely on Pennsylvania projects from conception to birth. Funded by the state, this staff person attended meetings in the field, in Harrisburg and in communities all over Pennsylvania listening, learning and, at times, doing a little teaching herself. I will not pretend it was easy, but I think the fact that Penn DOT has renewed its funding commitment shows it must be working for them. In all of my years of public service, this is one of the more progressive relationships I have seen between state and federal government.
Maryland is close to signing an agreement with EPA which will help pay for one half of a position to concentrate on their high priority transportation projects. That's what they think will help them meet their streamlining goals, and West Virginia has begun to discuss the possibility of gaining extra EPA assistance earlier in the process as well.
The Washington state DOT is in the process of developing similar agreements with multiple agencies, both state and federal. The state of Washington and our regional office in Seattle have worked out a process to merge environmental reviews with transportation planning. This requires getting the transportation planning, engineering and environmental review staff all at the table together from the earliest stage of project conception. While this is resource intensive for EPA and other agencies, it holds the promise of saving time and dollars over the life span of a project.
Four states do not a tidal wave make. Yet, for those four states, Section 1309 provides the flexibility to better manage transportation priorities and resources in a way which they believe enables them to serve their citizens better. It allows us to better meet their needs without sacrificing our normal level of service to the other states. And, serving the citizens is what we are in business to do.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. As you have heard, EPA supports the goals of environmental streamlining, not just because it is the law, not just because it is good for the economy, but also because it makes sense for the environment by giving us the opportunity to concentrate our resources at a time and in a way which produces environmentally sound transportation solutions.