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FRA & NEPA Documentation

Documentation (along with dissemination) is an essential component of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) project development process, which supports and complements public involvement and interagency coordination. NEPA requires that Federal agencies disclose the results of their analysis and the effects of project implementation on the environment and solicit comments on the proposals from interested and affected parties.

The purpose of documenting the NEPA process provides for complete disclosure to the public; allows others an opportunity to provide input and comment on proposals, alternatives, and environmental impacts; and provides the appropriate information for the decision maker to determine a reasoned choice among alternatives.

Rail-related projects vary in type, size, complexity, and potential to affect the environment. Effects from proposed projects can vary from very minor to significant impacts on the human environment. To account for the variability of project impacts, three basic "classes of action" are allowed and determine how compliance with NEPA is carried out and documented.

Documentation process

Categorical Exclusion (CE)

A CE is a category of actions that do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment, and for which neither an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement is required (40 CFR 1508.4). 

CEs are actions that: do not induce significant impacts to planned growth or land use for the area, do not require the relocation of significant numbers of people; do not have a significant impact on any natural, cultural, recreational, historic or other resource; do not involve significant air, noise, or water quality impacts; do not have significant impacts on travel patterns; and do not otherwise, either individually or cumulatively, have any significant environmental impacts (23 CFR 771.116).

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has prepared a worksheet to assist project sponsors in assessing project eligibility for a CE to fulfill NEPA requirements. Actions that are typically eligible for a CE are listed in section 4 of FRA’s 1999 Procedures for Considering Environmental Impacts, which was updated in 2013. On November 28, 2018, FRA's CEs can be found at 23 CFR 771.116.

Environmental Assessment (EA)

FRA, in coordination with Project Sponsors, will prepare an EA for actions in which the significance of the environmental impact is not clearly established. An EA is a concise public document, for which a Federal agency is responsible, that serves to (40 CFR 1508.9):

  • Briefly provide sufficient evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an environmental impact statement or a finding of no significant impact.
  • Aid FRA’s compliance with NEPA when no environmental impact statement is necessary.
  • Include brief discussions of the need for the proposal, of the environmental impacts of the proposed action and alternatives, and a listing of agencies and persons consulted.
  • Facilitate preparation of an environmental impact statement when one is necessary.

Should environmental analysis and interagency review during the EA process find a project to have no significant impacts on the quality of the environment, a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) is issued (40 CFR Part 1508.923 CFR Part 771.119-123) to conclude the process and document the decision. If significant impacts are found, then FRA must complete an environmental impact statement.

Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) 

NEPA requires Federal agencies to prepare EISs for major Federal actions that significantly affect the quality of the human environment. An EIS is a full disclosure document that details the process through which a transportation project was developed, includes consideration of a range of reasonable alternatives, analyzes the potential impacts resulting from the alternatives, and demonstrates compliance with other applicable environmental laws and executive orders.

The EIS process is completed in the following ordered steps: notice of intent (NOI), Draft EIS, Final EIS, and record of decision (ROD). An EIS is the most extensive form of documentation and incorporates considerable public outreach and input (40 CFR Part 1508.11 and 23 CFR Part 771.123-127).