FRA Legislation & Regulations
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Project Sponsors need to comply with not only the FRA National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations, but also several additional laws, executive orders, and requirements that all fit under the umbrella of the NEPA process. This section lists regulations likely to be covered under the NEPA process. FRA and Project Sponsors partner with natural, cultural, and historic resource agencies to meet the requirements of additional considerations and must establish realistic timeframes for the environmental review of rail projects. The efficient and effective coordination of multiple environmental reviews, analyses, and permitting actions is essential to meet the mandates for:
To assist Federal agencies in effectively implementing the environmental policy and "action forcing" provisions of NEPA, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued Regulations for Implementing the Procedural Provisions of NEPA. These regulations were last amended on September 21, 2022 (40 CFR Parts 1500–1508). In 1980, CEQ issued the guidance document Forty Questions and Answers on the CEQ Regulations. Since that time, CEQ has published additional NEPA process guidance and information covering a variety of issues.
FRA environmental review is subject to the statutory provisions for Efficient environmental reviews for project decision-making (23 U.S.C. 139), first established under Section 6002 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient (SAFETEA-LU) and described in the SAFETEA-LU Environmental Review Process Final Guidance. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, enacted on November 15, 2021, modified these requirements. FRA, in coordination with the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration, has issued interim guidance in the form of Questions and Answers, which provides direction to agency staff and project sponsors regarding the changes to the environmental review process.
To address the NEPA responsibilities established by CEQ, FRA in partnership with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued updates to the regulation Environmental Impact and Related Procedures 23 CFR Parts 771 and 774 in October 2018, effective on November 28, 2018.
Relevant Federal Transportation Authorizations
FAST Act: The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) (P.L. 114-94), signed into law on December 4, 2015, was the first Federal-aid law in over a decade to provide long-term funding certainty for surface transportation infrastructure planning and investment. The FAST Act also marked the first time intercity passenger rail programs had been included in a comprehensive, multi-modal surface transportation authorization bill, authorizing more than $10 billion for intercity passenger and freight rail grants.
The FAST Act includes several provisions to further expedite permitting processes while still protecting environmental and historic treasures and codifying the online system to track projects and interagency coordination processes. Some of these requirements are directed to FRA’s program delivery efforts.
MAP-21: The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) (P.L. 112-141), signed into law on July 6, 2012, promotes accelerating project delivery and encourages innovation through the increased use of Categorical Exclusions (CEs), programmatic approaches, and linking planning and NEPA.
Human & Natural Environment
Rail transportation project development must reflect the desires of communities, and take into account the impacts on both the natural and human environments. Therefore, in addition to NEPA and Federal transportation authorizations referenced above, proposed rail transportation projects are subject to many other laws, regulations, and Executive Orders (E.O.).
These laws cover social, economic, and environmental concerns ranging from community cohesion to threatened and endangered species. The following sections cover examples of these laws.
Communities and Environmental Justice
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in all areas of public life including jobs, schools, transportation, and areas open to the public. The purpose of the law is to ensure people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
E.O. 12898 on Environmental Justice directs Federal agencies to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations. The E.O. is intended to promote nondiscrimination in Federal programs that affect human health and the environment. The E.O. was revised on May 21, 2021 by the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and requires equal access to employment and public places.
The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) preserves historical and archaeological sites in the U.S. Section 106 of the NHPA requires agencies using Federal funds to identify historic properties and consider the effects of their projects on those historic properties. Under Section 4(f) found at 23 CFR Part 774, agencies of the U.S. DOT must avoid use of historic sites.
The Final Section 106 Program Comment for Rail Rights-of-Way (published in the Federal Register on August 24, 2018): excludes from the Section 106 consultation process routine activities affecting active transportation rights-of-ways.
Hazardous Materials and Waste
Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) innovation is fostered by FRA throughout the industry, helping development of new hazardous materials regulations and design standards to improve the safety and integrity of tank cars and other packages carrying hazardous materials.
The Farmland Protection Policy Act minimizes the impact Federal programs have on the unnecessary and irreversible conversion of farmland to nonagricultural uses. It assures that to the extent possible federal programs are administered to be compatible with State, local units of government, and private programs and policies to protect farmland.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act provides fund matching to Federal, State, and local governments for the acquisition of land and water, and easements on land and water. It is intended to protect national natural treasures in the forms of parks and protected forest and wildlife areas.
Noise and Vibration
The Railroad Noise Emissions Compliance Regulation is enforced by FRA’s Office of Safety and sets maximum sound levels from railroad equipment and for regulating locomotive horns. FRA published the Train Horn Rule (49 CFR Part 222), providing the community an opportunity to create a quiet zone. Localities desiring to establish a quiet zone are first required to mitigate the increased risk caused by the absence of a horn. Learn how to create a Quiet Zone here.
Parks and Recreational Facilities
Section 4(f) of the U.S. Department of Transportation Act of 1966 specifies that FRAcannot approve the use of land from publicly owned parks, recreational areas, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, or public and private historical sites unless there are no existing feasible and prudent alternatives to the use of the land and the proposed action includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the property.
The Clean Air Act regulates stationary and mobile sources of air pollution to protect human health and the environment.
The General Conformity rule ensures that actions taken by FRA do not interfere with a State’s plans to attain and maintain national standards for air quality (NAAQS), and plays an important role in helping those States and tribes improve air quality in their areas that do not meet the NAAQS. FRA follows the General Conformity rule under the Clean Air Act (section 176(c)(4)) for rail infrastructure projects.
The Regulations for Emissions from Locomotives program finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in June 2008 dramatically reduces emissions from diesel locomotives of all types — line-haul, switch, and passenger rail. EPA standards also apply for existing locomotives when they are remanufactured. Requirements are also in place to reduce idling for new and remanufactured locomotives.
The Coastal Zone Management Act manages the nation’s coastal resources, balancing land and water issues. It outlines three programs: the National Coastal Zone Management Program, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program.
The Endangered Species Act protects and recovers imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the primary law that governs marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters. It fosters the long-term biological and economic sustainability of marine fisheries.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits harassing, feeding, hunting, capturing, collecting, or killing any marine mammal or part of a marine mammal.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) prevents the taking of birds listed as "migratory birds," including all common songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, hawks, owls, eagles, ravens, crows, native doves and pigeons, swifts, martins, and swallows. Federal-aid highway projects that are likely to result in "take" of birds protected under the MBTA require the issuance of take permits.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act preserves rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.
The Clean Water Act regulates discharging pollutants into the waters of the United States to protect human health and the environment. Under the Clean Water Act, State environmental agencies and the EPA employ a variety of regulatory and non-regulatory tools to reduce direct and indirect pollutant discharges into waterways.
The Safe Drinking Water Act authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national health-based standards for drinking water to protect against both naturally-occurring and man-made contaminants that may be found in drinking water. EPA, States, and water systems then work together to make sure that these standards are met.