Highway Infrastructure:

FHWA Has Acted to Disclose the Limitations of Its Environmental Review Analysis

GAO-03-338R: Published: Jan 16, 2003. Publicly Released: Feb 19, 2003.

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Environmental reviews of complex federally funded highway construction projects may take years. The Congress has an interest in identifying and, if necessary, addressing the reasons to expedite highway projects. To better understand these reasons, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) surveyed its 55 division offices to determine why the environmental review of certain highway projects took more than 5 years. The Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure requested that we determine (1) the reasonableness of FHWA's survey methodology and offer suggestions for improvement, if appropriate, and (2) the feasibility of resurveying the same projects to gain an additional understanding about why environmental reviews took more than 5 years. To carry out this work, we interviewed FHWA officials about how they selected projects, surveyed their division offices, and analyzed the responses they obtained. In addition, we applied the lessons learned from FHWA's original approach to assess the feasibility of resurveying the same projects.

Aspects of FHWA's methodology, such as relying on its division offices for information rather than on a larger set of stakeholders, were reasonable, given the agency's desire for a quick exploration of the subject. However, several other aspects of FHWA's methodology lead us to question the usefulness of the results. FHWA's reliance on narrative responses (rather than multiple choice questions, for example) produced results that are not particularly useful because the answers are general and typically do not delineate the underlying reasons why environmental reviews took more than 5 years. Resurveying the 89 projects is feasible and could provide more useful and reliable information on why environmental reviews took more than 5 years. However, several issues would have to be addressed before undertaking any such effort. These issues include (1) verifying that the 14 FHWA division offices (25 percent) that did not respond to the agency's original survey did not have projects in environmental review for 5 years or more and (2) determining whether a newer data set (e.g., projects with environmental reviews lasting more than 5 years at the time of the resurvey) might provide more current and reliable information. The costs and benefits of redoing the survey would also have to be weighed against the expected results of several current FHWA initiatives that are intended to shed light on how environmental reviews of federally funded highway projects are completed. The results for FHWA's efforts are expected by spring 2003.

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