As aviation and environmental planning experts, we at ESA are always keeping an eye on evolving regulations and guidance, and a significant change is affecting how we approach environmental compliance for airport projects. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is now requiring a pre-planning phase before initiating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. This news comes along with broader updates to the NEPA regulations, which apply to all federal agencies nationwide.

This new approach requires a comprehensive upfront assessment that includes:

  • Identify the Project: Document current project justification as well as necessary planning studies and supporting information.
  • Prepare a Project Description: Detail the various elements of the project and any connected actions.
  • Determine Federal Action Requirements: Coordinate with the FAA Airports District Office (ADO) Environmental Protection Specialist (EPS) to determine the Federal Action required and identify the lead and cooperating agencies.
  • Forecast: Determine if a special purpose forecast is required and identify the activity that will be induced because of the project.
  • Preliminary Purpose and Need: Prepare a preliminary purpose and need statement detailing the problem that the project is solving.
  • Identify Alternatives: Identify a range of alternatives to help demonstrate a robust planning process.
  • Environmental Screening: Conduct a screening analysis for each environmental category. This includes preparation of special resource studies such as Cultural Resources Assessments, Biological Assessments, noise screening, and others to ensure that potential impacts are identified early in the process. This may require engaging with relevant agencies early on to ensure a smooth flow of information and minimize potential delays.
  • Community Concerns: Identify community concerns and opposition and how these concerns relate to individual resource categories.
  • Potential Mitigation: Outline potential mitigation strategies to address any anticipated significant effects.
  • Supporting Documentation: Identify key contacts, a schedule, the proposed approach to community outreach, and other technical studies required (traffic, noise, and air quality modeling, etc.) to complete the NEPA process.

Why the Change?

The FAA is looking to streamline the NEPA process for Environmental Assessments (EAs) and ensure completion within the federally mandated one-year timeframe. This pre-planning phase, while adding a layer of complexity, is designed to mitigate delays and facilitate efficient project progression. Projects that enter the NEPA process with inadequate planning often encounter considerable delays.

This pre-planning phase is essentially the detailed project definition phase that’s been promoted for many years, albeit with limited uptake/success. It takes a project from the higher-level planning (often conducted in a master plan) to the detailed planning required to determine project specifics and evaluate potential impacts.

What Does this Mean for Our Clients?

The new pre-planning phase brings several key considerations:

Increased costs: Expect an additional $50,000 to $300,000 (or even more in some cases) to be allocated for this phase. This upfront work, however, reduces the level of effort in the EA phase.

Extended timelines: This pre-planning phase can take six months or more to complete. The one-year NEPA timeline starts when the FAA determines that adequate planning has been completed.

Enhanced detail: The level of detail required for this upfront assessment can exceed what has been traditionally prepared as part of the NEPA process. This means that not all the information gathered during this phase may be directly incorporated into the NEPA document.

Best Practices for Success

To navigate these changes and avoid potential delays, we strongly advise our clients to:

Plan ahead: Include this pre-planning phase in your project timeline and budget. This is critical to ensure that grant funding cycles are met.

Complete detailed planning and prepare a robust project description: Ensure you have adequate planning and a comprehensive and detailed project description readily available.

Gather necessary information: Initiate special resource studies and agency coordination early in the process.

Consult with the FAA early in the process and reach out to your aviation experts at ESA to help you navigate this new landscape effectively. By incorporating these best practices, you can ensure a smooth transition through the NEPA process and keep your airport projects moving forward efficiently.

For more information on this topic, please reach out to Mike Arnold, Airports/Aviation Market Leader.