Awards: North Carolina's Environmental Permitting Process Improvement Initiative
The Federal Highway Administration's
2003 Environmental Excellence Awards
North Carolina's Environmental Permitting Process Improvement Initiative
The environmental permitting process associated with building and maintaining North Carolina’s
transportation system is lengthy and highly complex, involving many state and federal agencies. In
an effort to improve the workflow effectiveness and efficiency of the environmental permit
development, coordination, and issuance process, the NC Department of Transportation (NCDOT), the
NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and the US Army Corps of Engineers
(USACE) are jointly sponsoring a process improvement initiative. The initiative was initially
undertaken with the primary purpose of developing quality permit applications and issuing
environmental permits that support the timely delivery of the transportation program while
minimizing disruption to the natural and human environment. In North Carolina, the permitting
process is integral with the project development and National Environmental Policy Act
decision-making process. While the original intent of the initiative was to improve the permitting
process, the project development process also had to be examined in order to effect substantive
change. The result is a mutually agreed upon project development and environmental permitting
process that incorporates the true essence of environmental streamlining and stewardship: early
and continuous interagency coordination, avoidance and minimization of high quality resources
(beyond those required for regulatory compliance), shared environmental and transportation
decision-making, and well-defined dispute resolution procedures.
At the onset of the initiative, a team was established and met for an intensive one-week,
facilitated workshop to analyze the current permitting process, identify the trouble spots,
and redesign the process to eliminate major problems, including re-work at late stages in the
project development process. Participants in the initial process improvement workshop
initiative included experts from the DENR’s Division of Water Quality, Division of Coastal
Management, and Wetlands Restoration Unit and the USACE’s Regulatory Branch. Staff from
NCDOT’s Natural Systems Unit, Project Development, Design Branch, Hydraulics Unit, and
Operations round out this diverse, interdisciplinary team. Through group discussions, the
team gained in-depth knowledge of the current permitting process and the role each agency
plays in the process. A detailed process map was developed showing the dependent
relationship between the environmental permitting, project development, design and
mitigation processes. Customers to the process provided their expectations of the current
process as well as provided a rating as to how the current process was meeting their needs.
After identifying and analyzing the problems associated with the current process, the team
redesigned the process to address concerns that had been identified.
It was no surprise to the team that the challenges associated with permitting occur in the
very early stages in systems planning when alternatives are first considered – when the
opportunity to avoid and minimize wetlands is greatest. Therefore, the team considered the
early planning stages, project programming and project development -- parts of the process
not traditionally thought of as "the permitting process" -- as potential areas for improvement.
The anticipated benefits of the new process include a shorter overall permitting process,
potential cost savings and improved predictability on when projects can proceed to the
construction phase. Specifically, the team hopes to achieve a 2-year overall reduction in
time to develop, coordinate and issue permits, as well as a nine-month reduction in the
overall time it takes to plan and prepare a project for construction. (The current process
takes as many as 10 or more years for a highly complex project). Other improvements will be
achieved by beginning mitigation planning earlier in the project development process,
making bridging decisions early, avoiding and minimizing high quality resources throughout
the systems planning and project development phases, coordinating hydraulic design with
resource agencies in advance of right-of-way acquisition, and significantly reducing the
amount of re-work that occurs throughout the process.
Early and continuous coordination during project development were integrated into the
redesigned process to more effectively and efficiently address the following critical
issues associated with the permitting process: purpose and need, range of alternatives
to be studied, avoidance and minimization of wetlands and wetland and stream mitigation.
In order to realize the changes to the project development and environmental permitting
process, 30 individual implementation items were recommended. These recommendations fall
into general categories and include project programming, project development and NEPA
compliance, legislation and regulations and applications/permits. Many of the specific
recommendations relate to improved communication, early identification of resources,
technology enhancements and training and education.
An interagency Coordination Group is overseeing the implementation of the revised process.
The Coordination Group prioritized the implementation activities and charged knowledgeable
and expert interagency teams with specific activities through a signed charter that
identified team goals and deliverables. The implementation phase is well underway and
the benefits of the revised process are beginning to be realized.
Measurement criteria that will be used to track the success of new process implementation include:
- Average cycle time from permit application to formal approval
- Percent of projects with permits delivered on schedule
- Timely submission of information by NCDOT
- Percent of applications placed on hold by permitting agencies
- Average time that permits are received prior to the project letting
- Percent of permit applications submitted with the final approved mitigation plan
- Number of permit modifications
Not only will the State of North Carolina greatly benefit from a streamlined process that
results in the timely delivery of transportation projects with better environmental protection,
but this process serves as a national model for other Departments of Transportation and their
resource agency partners.