Speed-checking, red-light-policing, and traffic-monitoring cameras are among the intelligent transportation infrastructure projects that can be exempted from environmental assessments under a new Federal Highway Administration measure. Photo: Benjamin Elijah Griffin
‘Smart' Projects Avoid Environmental Studies

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is poised to exempt transportation departments from having to perform environmental assessments (EA) or release environmental impact statements (EIS) on intelligent transportation infrastructure (ITI) projects.

An EAis a study evaluating the potential impacts of a proposed project, as well as possible alternatives. An EIS spellsout the findings in detail.

ITI projects include installing video monitors along freeways, and using a radio dispatch system for emergency response and towing. Although these kinds of projects will be put in a categorical exclusion (CE) category that enables them to bypass the EA step, transportation departments still have to submit CE applications to the FHWAor the Federal Transit Administration before starting a federally funded project. However, CEs are simplified applications, approved much more quickly than EISs or EAs.

Congestion management activities—such as converting high-occupancy vehicle lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes—may also be eligible for CEs, but the FHWA has not made that decision yet. FHWA data reveals that CEs are required for 91% of federally funded transportation projects. But Nick Goldstein, staff attorney of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, says it takes an average of 2.2 years for the FHWA to clear a CE. Rather than increase the number of CE categories, Goldstein says his group would prefer that the FHWA set a deadline for approving them, and focus on ways to reduce delays.

‘Heads Up' Required from Water Managers

Thanks to recent changes to the EPA's Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), drinking water managers must get state approval before changing treatment or adding a new source.

Before, agencies had up to 60 days after making a change to notify the state. The advance notification requirement applies to longterm changes such as switching secondary disinfectants (for example, from chlorine to chloramines), changing coagulants (alum to ferric chloride), and swapping corrosion inhibitors (orthophosphate to blended phosphate). It does not apply to operational activities that may cause water quality to fluctuate from day to day.

Still up in the air is a state's deadline for responding to proposed system changes. When the EPA published the proposed rule amendments last year, it didn't establish a timeframe.

As a result, says Cleveland Water Division quality manager Maggie Rodgers, “we'll be on the phone bothering them heavily until we get some response.”

In the meantime, managers like Rodgers may get some leeway on notifying consumers about elevated lead levels in their tap water.

That's because the rule also establishes an “exceedence point” timeline—that is, the date when a water system is considered to have exceeded the lead or copper action level and must conduct a corrosion control study, replace service lines, notify the public, or take other remedial action.

The exceedence point is now set on the last day of a given monitoring period, which typically lasts four months. While water managers have had to adhere to a rigid schedule for notifying consumers of high lead levels, the rule now allows states to extend deadlines if the decision to do so is made within 60 days of the exceedence. The rule does not spell out, however, how long deadlines can be extended.

Established in 1991, the EPA's lead-and-copper mandates drive monitoring schedules, notification requirements, and water line replacements. The rule remained essentially the same until 2004, when it was overhauled in response to elevated lead levels in the District of Columbia's drinking water.

Announced Oct. 10, the rule changes became effective Dec. 10. Managers in states that haven't adopted the changes have an extra 180 days to comply. If those states don't act by May 10, 2008, managers must comply by Dec. 10, 2009, or when the states endorse the changes, whichever comes sooner.

— Steve Barlas has served as a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer for trade and professional magazines since 1981. In that time, he has covered nearly every federal regulatory agency, cabinet department, and congressional committee, with a special emphasis on the EPA