After one year, Feds examine how DOT takeover of environmental reviews is working

A truck makes its way south on the Dalton Highway near Coldfoot, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

For the first time, the state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is in the driver’s seat when it comes to navigating the legal environmental requirements that come along with big transportation projects.

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The state doesn’t have a dedicated fund for state highway projects. So, something like 90% of the projects in the state get federal money. That means that when the state wants to work on a highway — build a new one, widen an old one — there’s usually some kind of federal environmental review.

Typically that review falls under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to consider the impact that any decision they make might have on the environment.

In the past, the Federal Highway Administration handled that review. But an Obama-era law gave states the option to take control of some of that process. Last year, Alaska joined six states that have taken the feds up on that offer.

There’s evidence that the states that have taken over this work are saving a lot of time in the permitting process.

In early September, the Federal Highway Administration put out the results of its first audit of how Alaska’s Department of Transportation is handling the new responsibilities.

There are few areas that could be improved, like one instance where the state should have held a public hearing, but didn’t. And there are questions about having enough staff and allocating the time and money they need for training.

But there are other areas where federal auditors say the state is doing well. Like, bringing in legal help early-on in the process.

With this new power comes new responsibility — namely legal liability. It means it can be sued in federal court.

The state added a new attorney in the Department of Law — specifically to make sure that projects are legally defensible. The state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities added four other positions to cope with the new responsibilities too.

The Federal Highway Administration is taking comments on the audit until October 5.