Surface Transportation Project Delivery Program; Alaska Department of Transportation Third Audit Report
Surface Transportation Project Delivery Program; Alaska Department of Transportation Third Audit Report
Nicole R. Nason
Federal Highway Administration
7 December 2020
[Federal Register Volume 85, Number 235 (Monday, December 7, 2020)]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2020-26790]
DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Federal Highway Administration
[FHWA Docket No. FHWA-2020-0014]
Surface Transportation Project Delivery Program; Alaska
Department of Transportation Third Audit Report
AGENCY: Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), U.S. Department of
ACTION: Notice; Request for comment.
SUMMARY: The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21)
established the Surface Transportation Project Delivery Program that
allows a State to assume FHWA's environmental responsibilities for
environmental review, consultation, and compliance under the National
Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for Federal highway projects. When a
State assumes these Federal responsibilities, the State becomes solely
responsible and liable for carrying out the responsibilities it has
assumed, in lieu of FHWA. This program mandates annual audits during
each of the first 4 years of State participation to ensure compliance
with program requirements. This notice announces and solicits comments
on the third audit report for the Alaska Department of Transportation
and Public Facilities (DOT&PF).
DATES: Comments must be received on or before January 6, 2021.
ADDRESSES: Mail or hand deliver comments to Docket Management Facility:
U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Room W12-
140, Washington, DC 20590. You may also submit comments electronically
at www.regulations.gov. All comments should include the docket number
that appears in the heading of this document. All comments received
will be available for examination and copying at the above address from
9 a.m. to 5 p.m., e.t., Monday through Friday, except Federal holidays.
Those desiring notification of receipt of comments must include a self-
addressed, stamped postcard or you may print the acknowledgment page
that appears after submitting comments electronically. Anyone can
search the electronic form of all comments in any of our dockets by the
name of the individual submitting the comment (or signing the comment,
if submitted on behalf of an association, business, or labor union).
The DOT posts these comments, without edits, including any personal
information the commenter provides, to www.regulations.gov, as
described in the system of records notice (DOT/ALL-14 FDMS), which can
be reviewed at www.dot.gov/privacy.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Mr. David T. Williams, Office of
Project Development and Environmental Review, (202) 366-5074,
David.Williams@dot.gov, or Mr. Jay Payne, Office of the Chief Counsel,
(202) 366-4241, James.O.Payne@dot.gov; Federal Highway Administration,
U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE,
Washington, DC 20590. Office hours are from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,
e.t., Monday through Friday, except Federal holidays.
An electronic copy of this notice may be downloaded from the
specific docket page at www.regulations.gov.
The Surface Transportation Project Delivery Program, codified at 23
U.S.C. 327, commonly known as the NEPA Assignment Program, allows a
State to assume FHWA's environmental responsibilities for review,
consultation, and compliance for Federal highway projects. When a State
assumes these Federal responsibilities, the State becomes solely liable
for carrying out the responsibilities it has assumed, in lieu of FHWA.
The DOT&PF published its application for NEPA assumption on May 1,
2016, and made it available for public comment for 30 days. After
considering public comments, DOT&PF submitted its application to FHWA
on July 12, 2016. The application served as the basis for developing a
memorandum of understanding (MOU) that identified the responsibilities
and obligations that the DOT&PF would assume. The FHWA published a
notice of the draft MOU in the Federal Register on August 25, 2017,
with a 30-day comment period to solicit the views of the public and
Federal agencies. After the close of the comment period, FHWA and
DOT&PF considered comments and proceeded to execute the MOU. Effective
November 13, 2017, DOT&PF assumed FHWA's responsibilities under NEPA,
and the responsibilities for NEPA-related Federal environmental laws
described in the MOU.
Section 327(g) of title 23, U.S.C., requires the Secretary to
conduct annual audits to ensure compliance with the MOU during each of
the first 4 years of State participation and, after the fourth year,
monitor compliance. The FHWA must make the results of each audit
available for public comment. The second audit report of DOT&PF
compliance was finalized on February 25, 2020. This notice announces
the availability of the third audit report for DOT&PF and solicits
public comment on same.
Authority: Section 1313 of Public Law 112-141; Section 6005 of
Public Law 109-59; 23 U.S.C. 327; 23 CFR 773.
Nicole R. Nason,
Administrator, Federal Highway Administration.
Surface Transportation Project Delivery Program, FHWA's Audit of the
Alaska Department of Transportation
April 6-10, 2020
This report summarizes the results of the Federal Highway
Administration's (FHWA) third audit of the Alaska Department of
Transportation and Public Facilities' (DOT&PF) assumption of FHWA's
project-level National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) responsibilities
and obligations pursuant to a 23 U.S.C. 327
Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The DOT&PF entered the NEPA
Assignment Program after more than 8 years of experience making FHWA
NEPA Categorical Exclusion (CE) determinations pursuant to 23 U.S.C.
326 (beginning September 22, 2009).
Alaska's MOU became effective on November 13, 2017. Currently,
FHWA's NEPA responsibilities in Alaska include the oversight and
auditing of the DOT&PF's execution of the NEPA Assignment Program and
certain activities excluded from the MOU, such as the NEPA reviews of
projects advanced by direct recipients other than the DOT&PF.
The FHWA audit team began to prepare for the site visit in November
2019. The audit team reviewed DOT&PF's NEPA project files, DOT&PF's
response to FHWA's pre-audit information request (PAIR), and considered
DOT&PF's Self-Assessment Report. On April 6-10, 2020, the audit team
conducted a completely virtual site visit rather than its traditional
on-site visit due to national health emergency travel restrictions.
The audit team appreciates DOT&PF's responsiveness to the questions
regarding the status of general observations from the second audit.
This report concludes with a status update for FHWA's observations from
the second audit report.
The audit team finds DOT&PF in substantial compliance with the
terms of the MOU in meeting the responsibilities it has assumed. This
report does not identify any non-compliance observations; it does
identify two general observations and three successful practices.
The NEPA Assignment Program allows a State to assume FHWA's
environmental responsibilities for review, consultation, and compliance
for highway projects. This program is codified at 23 U.S.C. 327. When a
State assumes these Federal responsibilities for NEPA project
decisionmaking, the State becomes solely responsible and solely liable
for carrying out these obligations in lieu of and without further NEPA-
related approval by FHWA.
The FHWA assigned responsibility for making project NEPA approvals
and other related environmental decisions for highway projects to
DOT&PF. The MOU documents these responsibilities. Examples of
responsibilities DOT&PF has assumed in addition to NEPA include Section
7 consultation under the Endangered Species Act and consultation under
Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
This is the third of four required annual audits pursuant to 23
U.S.C. 327(g) and Part 11 of the MOU. The FHWA uses audits as the
primary mechanism to oversee DOT&PF's compliance with the MOU and the
NEPA Assignment Program requirements. This includes ensuring compliance
with applicable Federal laws and policies, evaluating DOT&PF's progress
toward achieving the performance measures identified in Section 10.2 of
the MOU, and collecting information needed for the Secretary's annual
report to Congress. The FHWA must present its audit results in a report
and make it available for public comment in the Federal Register.
The audit team included NEPA subject matter experts from FHWA
Alaska Division Office, the Chief Counsel's Office, the Resource
Center, and Headquarters Office of Project Development & Environmental
Review and Infrastructure.
Scope and Methodology
The audit team examined a sample of DOT&PF's NEPA project files,
DOT&PF responses to the PAIR, and DOT&PF's Self-Assessment Report. The
audit team also interviewed resource agencies and DOT&PF staff and
reviewed DOT&PF policies, guidance, and manuals pertaining to NEPA
responsibilities. All reviews focused on objectives related to the six
NEPA Assignment Program elements: Program Management, Documentation and
Records Management, Quality Assurance/Quality Control (QA/QC),
Training, Performance Measures, and Legal Sufficiency.
Project File Review: To consider DOT&PF staff adherence to program
procedures and Federal requirements, the audit team selected a sample
of individual project files for which the environmental review had been
completed. The audit team evaluated DOT&PFs compliance with assumed
responsibilities and adherence to their own processes and procedures
for project-level environmental decisionmaking. The audit team did not
evaluate DOT&PF's project-specific decisions. The 54 sampled files
included programmatic CEs (actions approved in the regional offices as
noted in DOT&PF's November 2017 NEPA Assignment Categorical Exclusion
guidance), CEs and Environmental Assessments (approved in the Statewide
Environmental Office (SEO)), and re-evaluations (approved by the same
office as the original environmental document).
PAIR Review: The audit team reviewed DOT&PF's responses to the
PAIR, which consisted of 32 questions about specific elements in the
MOU that DOT&PF must implement. The audit team used these responses to
develop specific follow-up questions for interviews with DOT&PF staff.
DOT&PF Self-Assessment Review: The audit team reviewed DOT&PF's
January 2020 Self-Assessment Report and used it to develop specific
follow-up questions for interviews with DOT&PF staff. The NEPA
Assignment Program MOU Section 8.2.5 requires the DOT&PF to conduct
annual self-assessments of its QA/QC procedures and performance.
Interviews: The audit team conducted 21 interviews with DOT&PF
staff. Interviewees included staff from each of DOT&PF's three regional
offices and its SEO. The audit team invited DOT&PF staff and middle
management to participate in interviews to ensure they represented a
diverse range of staff expertise, experience, and program
In addition, the audit team conducted two phone interviews of
attorneys with the Alaska Department of Law and five phone interviews
with staff at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine
Fisheries Service (NMFS).
Policy/Guidance/Manual Review: Throughout the document reviews and
interviews, the audit team verified information on DOT&PF's NEPA
Assignment Program including DOT&PF policies, guidance, manuals, and
reports. This included the Environmental Program Manual (EPM), the NEPA
Assignment QA/QC Plan, the NEPA Assignment Program Training Plan, and
the NEPA Assignment Self-Assessment Report.
Overall Audit Opinion
This report identifies two observations and three successful
practices. The audit team finds DOT&PF is substantially in compliance
with the provisions of the MOU, has carried out the environmental
responsibilities it assumed through the NEPA Assignment Program, and
has taken steps to address observations identified in the second audit.
The audit team did not make any non-compliance observations in the
Observations and Successful Practices
This section summarizes the audit team's observations of DOT&PF's
NEPA Assignment Program implementation,
and DOT&PF's successful practices. ``Observations'' are items the audit
team would like to draw DOT&PF's attention to, which may benefit from
revisions to improve processes, procedures, or outcomes. The DOT&PF may
have already taken steps to address or improve upon the audit team's
observations, but at the time of the audit they appeared to be areas
where DOT&PF could make improvements. ``Successful practices'' are
positive results that FHWA would like to commend DOT&PF on developing.
These may include ideas or concepts that DOT&PF has planned but not yet
implemented. Successful practices and observations are described under
the six MOU topic areas: Program Management, Documentation and Records
Management, QA/QC, Training, Performance Measures, and Legal
This audit report provides an opportunity for DOT&PF to take
further actions to improve their program. The FHWA will consider the
status of areas identified for potential improvement in this audit's
observations as part of the scope of the fourth audit. The fourth audit
report will include a summary discussion that describes progress since
Program Management includes the overall administration of the NEPA
Assignment Program. The audit team noted the following successful
practices and observations related to Program Management.
Successful Practice #1: Consultation With Resource Agencies
The review team interviewed five staff from the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers (USACE) and three staff from NMFS. Under Section 3.2.1 of the
MOU, the State assumed the DOT Secretary's responsibilities for highway
projects under NEPA for environmental review, reevaluation,
consultation, or other actions required under the Endangered Species
Act, the Clean Water Act, and other environmental laws. The audit
teams' assessment of DOT&PF's compliance with consultation and
permitting requirements under this section of the MOU resulted in the
following five conclusions:
1. DOT&PF is submitting complete and accurate information to both
the USACE and NMFS for consultation and permitting requirements.
2. DOT&PF is very responsive when agencies request additional
information or revisions.
3. DOT&PF submits comprehensive and timely monitoring reports when
they are required for projects.
4. DOT&PF has improved their oversight of construction contractors'
adherence to USACE permit conditions. The DOT&PF has self-reported
permit violations and worked with the USACE to remedy the situation.
5. DOT&PF has a good working relationship with USACE and NMFS. Some
of the DOT&PF regions have set up regular meetings with the agencies to
foster relationships and enhance communication. Resource agency
interviews revealed that they think those meetings are helpful and
would like them to continue.
The USACE interviews identified an opportunity to increase the
efficiency of interagency coordination. The DOT&PF should more clearly
identify in the permitting package whether a project is a Federal
undertaking or not, and identify what coordination it has completed.
Observation #1: Self-Assessment Procedures
Section 8.2.5 of the MOU (Monitoring and Oversight), requires
DOT&PF to perform annual self-assessments of its QA/QC process and
performance to determine if the process is working as intended. Section
10.1.3 of the MOU (Performance Measurement) requires DOT&PF to collect
and maintain data related to the attainment of performance measures,
monitor progress towards meeting performance measures, and include its
progress in a self-assessment. The DOT&PF's 2018 NEPA Assignment
Program Self-Assessment Procedures require that SEO develop the
preliminary and final self-assessment report through coordination with,
and input from, the Regional Environmental Managers. The audit team
found that DOT&PF did not develop the January 2020 Self-Assessment
report in accordance with their procedures, nor distributed the final
report to the Regions. The audit team based this finding on interviews.
Documentation and Records Management
Documentation and Records Management includes maintaining project
files and other recordkeeping (whether hardcopy or electronic)
pertaining to DOT&PF's discharge of the responsibilities it has assumed
under the 23 U.S.C. 327 Program. From November 1, 2018, through October
31, 2019, DOT&PF made 287 project decisions. Through employing both
random and judgmental sampling procedures, the audit team identified 54
project decisions to review, and did not identify any systemic issues
warranting an observation.
Quality Assurance/Quality Control
Under Section 8.2.4 of the MOU, DOT&PF agreed to carry out regular
QA/QC activities in accordance with the MOU and DOT&PF procedures
established to implement the NEPA Assignment Program. Based on the
information evaluated by the audit team, DOT&PF is conducting regular
QA/QC activities in accordance with the MOU, though opportunities exist
to utilize trend data to continue improving the program.
Under Sections 12.1 and 12.2 of the MOU, DOT&PF committed to
implementing training necessary to carry out the environmental
responsibilities assumed under the NEPA Assignment Program. The DOT&PF
also committed to assessing its need for training, developing a
training plan, and updating the training plan on an annual basis.
Successful Practice #2: Central Region Organizational Cross-Training
The central region has recently kicked off an organizational cross-
training initiative, called ``Share-The-Knowledge,'' that provides
opportunities for environmental analysts to get exposure to informal
training in other functional areas, such as transportation planning,
realty, safety, highway design, operations, and construction. Cross-
training provides a general awareness of how and to what extent NEPA
reviews can relate to project planning and inform Federal-aid highway
Successful Practice #3: Taking Advantage of Training Opportunities
Based on interviews, the audit team learned the South Coast Region
invited Federal resource agency representatives to monthly meetings to
encourage knowledge sharing and partnering. During a time when training
budgets are limited, FHWA encourages DOT&PF to continue to take
advantage of training opportunities that may be made available by
Federal partners. One example was when DOT&PF staff participated in the
recent NMFS acoustic training in Anchorage.
The DOT&PF continues to collect, maintain, and develop data towards
monitoring its performance as required by Section 10.1.3 of the MOU.
team noted the following observation related to Performance Measures.
Observation #2: Assessing Resource Agency Communication
Section 10.2.1 C. of the MOU requires DOT&PF to ``Assess change in
communication among DOT&PF, Federal and State agencies, and the public
resulting from assumption of responsibilities under this MOU.'' The MOU
allows DOT&PF to determine the method it will use to assess this
change. The DOT&PF selected to use an annual resource agency poll. The
DOT&PF identified this measure in its DOT&PF NEPA Assignment Program
Performance Measures document located on its website. In addition,
DOT&PF reported in this audit, and Audits 1 and 2, that an annual
resource poll would be the method for collecting data towards
monitoring this measure. The DOT&PF has not used a resource agency poll
to date. Through the audit team's review of DOT&PF's Self-Assessment,
PAIR, and audit interviews with DOT&PF, the audit team found that a
poll was not a useful tool to assess changes in communication. The FHWA
recommends that the DOT&PF consider changing the method for reporting
Since 2017, the same attorney from the Alaska Department of Law
(Alaska DOL), Transportation Section, has been assigned to the NEPA
Assignment program. The assigned attorney has significant experience
with Federal-aid highway projects and the Federal environmental
process. The attorney works directly with DOT&PF staff on project
environmental documents. Based on the interviews, the review process
exceeded the standard set forth in the Environmental Procedures Manual
(EPM), with the attorney being involved early in project development,
normally reviewing a NEPA document before receiving a formal request
for a legal sufficiency review. During the audit period, the attorney
reviewed one Final Section 4(f) Evaluation and issued a finding of
legal sufficiency in August 2019. The attorney did not review an
environmental impact statement during the audit period.
The Alaska DOL management stated during the interviews that while
one attorney is currently assigned to the program, should workload
increase significantly another attorney would be assigned to NEPA work,
perhaps through the utilization of outside counsel per 23 U.S.C.
Based on these observations, the audit team finds that the DOT&PF
meets the legal sufficiency determination and staffing requirements set
forth in the DOT&PF EPM.
Status of Observations From Audit #2 Report (April 2019)
This section describes the actions DOT&PF has taken (or is taking)
in response to observations made during the second audit.
Observation #1: Applicability of Existing Interagency Agreements
Section 5.1.3 of the MOU required the DOT&PF to work with FHWA and
the resource agencies to modify existing interagency agreements within
6 months of the effective date of the MOU. During Audit 2, the audit
team determined that none of DOT&PF's existing agreements applied to
the current NEPA Assignment Program under 23 U.S.C. 327. According to
the January 2020 Self-Assessment Report, ``DOT&PF is not currently
pursuing agency agreements per Section 5.1.4 of the MOU regarding
appropriate processes and procedures.''
Observation #2: DOT&PF Delegation of Authority for NEPA Approvals
Section 3.3.1 of the MOU requires DOT&PF to make NEPA approvals (CE
determinations, findings of no significant impact, or records of
decision). Audit 2 revealed inconsistencies regarding the delegation of
NEPA approvals within DOT&PF. The DOT&PF's January 2020 Self-Assessment
states that DOT&PF will incorporate a protocol that standardizes the
delegation authority for NEPA approval in the regions in the February
2020 update of its EPM. The DOT&PF has not made any changes to the EPM
since February 2018 per the DOT&PF's response to Audit 3's Pre-Audit
Information Request. Based on interviews conducted as part of Audit 3,
DOT&PF now plans to incorporate this protocol into the EPM in May 2020.
Currently, each region has its own delegation process. Generally,
DOT&PF delegates the NEPA approvals to the senior staff and
communicates that delegation via email to affected parties. Most staff
interviewed understand their region's delegation process and new staff
are becoming oriented with the process.
Observation #3: Staff Capacity
Sections 4.2.1 and 4.2.2 of the MOU outline the requirements for
the State's commitment of resources and adequate organizational staff
capacity. Moderate to high staff turnover has been a recurring issue
since the MOU went into effect (Audit #1 report Observation #3 and
Audit #2 report Observation #3). According to the January 2020 Self-
Assessment Report, ``DOT&PF's staffing levels were a concern during
this audit period and senior staff expended considerable effort to hire
new qualified staff and to retain current staff. As a result of this
effort, the regional offices are now fully or near fully staffed.'' The
DOT&PF is aware of the issue and continues to track staffing impacts on
the NEPA Assignment Program through the QA/QC process.
Observation #4: Documentation of Environmental Commitments
Section 5.1.1 of the MOU requires the State to follow Federal laws,
regulations, policies, and procedures to implement the responsibilities
assumed. Audit 2 revealed inconsistencies regarding how DOT&PF was
documenting environmental commitments and making sure that DOT&PF
carries the environmental commitments through the project development
process and into construction. The DOT&PF developed written guidance on
the documentation of environmental commitments. According to the
January 2020 Self-Assessment Report, the guidance was implemented on
May 5, 2019. Based on the interviews conducted as part of Audit 3,
DOT&PF staff understood who certified that the environmental
commitments were included in the plan, specifications, and estimates,
as well as their role in the certification process.
Observation #5: Inconsistency in Project Termini and Statewide
Transportation Improvement Program (STIP)
Section 3.3.1 of the MOU requires DOT&PF, at the time of NEPA
approval (CE determination, finding of no significant impact, or record
of decision), to ensure that the project's design concept, scope, and
funding is consistent with current planning documents. During Audit 2,
the audit team found one project file with an inconsistency between
project termini shown in a project plan and that described in the STIP,
and similar inconsistencies in the DOT&PF's Audit 2 Self-Assessment.
Project scope inconsistencies were not found by the file review team
during Audit 3. The DOT&PF's Audit 3 Self-Assessment identified one
instance of a project description discrepancy that did not affect the
scope of the project. Regional QC efforts appear to have improved this
issue, although DOT&PF noted in their self-assessment that using the
STIP project description as the project scope in environmental
documents is not possible for all projects.
Observation #6: Training Plan Update
Section 12.2 of the MOU commits DOT&PF and FHWA to update the
DOT&PF training plan annually in consultation with other Federal
agencies as appropriate. The DOT&PF did not update its Training Plan
prior to or during the Audit 2 process. In their response to the Audit
3 PAIR, DOT&PF stated ``the training plan was updated on October 29,
2019 with minor revisions to Section 5. A list of proposed training has
been added to this section and the RD&T2 [Research, Development, and
Technology Transfer], FHWA, and Prior Training Requests subsections
have been removed.'' Based on the information gathered through the PAIR
and interviews, the audit team is satisfied that the DOT&PF addressed
the training observation from the second audit. Moving forward, DOT&PF
committed to coordinating with the Alaska Division Office for future
annual updates of the Training Plan.
[FR Doc. 2020-26790 Filed 12-4-20; 8:45 am]
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