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Considering Environment in Rural, Regional Transportation

In This Article:

A group of adults look at maps and plans, considering environment and community impacts, during a regional public input meeting.

Image courtesy Central Florida RPC.

Planning and Environment Linkages (PEL) establish coordination early in the transportation planning process. Coordination across multiple public agencies, as well as gathering input from members of the public, can assist transportation agencies with considering environment and community impacts of transportation initiatives. PEL could be used in different scales such as at the regional level during the transportation planning process or during the development of planning studies where planning products and decisions can be documented for future use in the environmental review process. 

Through research supported by the Federal Highway Administration, the NADO Research Foundation developed four issue briefs on considering environmental impacts in rural, small metro, and regional transportation planning and projects. The draft final PEL issue briefs are available below.

Planning and Environment Linkages: Climate Change (PDF)

Planning and Environment Linkages (PEL) is an approach used by transportation planning agencies to integrate environmental considerations and community input into transportation planning. 

PEL can help identify and address potential environmental impacts of transportation projects, including those related to climate change. Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather
patterns. This issue brief will address climate change issues in
transportation planning, agency experiences such as RTPO/RPO or MPO with incorporating PEL into climate change issues, and descriptions of lessons learned about how PEL could have been incorporated. Some state DOTs, MPOs, and RPOs have developed climate action plans or similar strategic documents that outline their goals and strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change. Some agencies are implementing various strategies to reduce emissions from transportation, such as promoting the use of alternative fuels and advanced vehicle technologies, encouraging modal shifts to public transportation and active transportation modes, and adopting policies to improve vehicle fuel efficiency. This can include supporting the deployment of electric vehicles (EVs), investing in EV charging infrastructure, and incentivizing the use of cleaner fuels.

Planning and Environment Linkages: Flexible Implementations (PDF)

Planning and Environmental Linkages (PEL) is a flexible approach that can be implemented in various ways depending on the needs of a particular project or region. . The scope of PEL may be narrowed to focus on specific environmental concerns, such as air quality or water resources. 

This issue brief will introduce core concepts of PEL and the range of PEL authorities. The brief will emphasize FHWA’s recommendation that PEL be as flexible as possible, with a range of possible implementation practices. The issue brief will include short snapshots of local government, regional agency (such as RTPO/RPO as described below, or Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO), state agency, Tribal government, or Federal agency role in integrating environmental considerations early in the transportation planning process.

Planning and Environment Linkages (PEL) represents a collaborative and integrated approach to transportation decision-making that 1) considers environmental, community, and economic goals early in the transportation planning process, and 2) uses the information, analysis, and products developed during planning to inform the environmental review process.[i]

Planning and Environment Linkages (PEL) establish coordination early in the transportation planning process. From the beginning steps of identifying a transportation problem, coordination across public agencies has a role in the planning process so that “environmental, community, and economic issues and concerns are appropriately considered and addressed.”[i]

Coordination occurs during visioning, alternatives identification, public engagement, prioritization, project recommendations, scoping, project development, and final project delivery. Coordination can only happen when agencies collaborate—and that collaboration involves Tribal, federal, state, and local agencies along with members of the public and advocacy groups.

This issue brief focuses on the relationships that regional and rural planning organizations establish with state and local governments and examines how interagency relationships are connected to transportation and environment planning policies and federal requirements. The brief also explores the benefits of interagency coordination, challenges, and barriers for interagency relationships, and offers examples of how agencies have successfully partnered in the PEL process.

[i] Oregon Department of Transportation. (2012). ODOT Planning and Environment Linkages Guidance.

Public Involvement to Support Planning and Environment Linkages in Rural and Small Metropolitan Areas (PDF)

Federal surface transportation legislation has long required transportation agencies to conduct public involvement throughout the transportation planning process. Incorporating public input early and often throughout planning, environmental review, and project development can provide many benefits and new ideas to local governments, Tribes, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and Regional Transportation Planning Organizations (often called RTPOs or RPOs), transit agencies, State Departments of Transportation (DOTs), and their private sector partners.

In addition, the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) also requires that the public have an opportunity to participate in Federal agencies’ environmental reviews. Enacted in 1969, NEPA acknowledges that governmental actions can affect the environment. NEPA requires that Federal agencies consider environmental and related social and economic effects of proposed actions (including federally funded projects) and also inform the public about decision making.[i]

Rather than collecting public information and conducting analysis on the same issues multiple times, linking the planning and environmental processes can result in several benefits, explored in this issue brief. Beginning in 2005, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) released joint guidance encouraging transportation agencies to create stronger linkages between the planning and NEPA processes. Although conducting Planning and Environment Linkages (PEL) is optional and does not require that agencies change their planning processes, the planning and environment connection was strengthened further in later regulation and statute.[ii]

[i] Council on Environmental Quality (2021), A Citizen’s Guide to NEPA: Having Your Voice Heard,

[ii] AASHTO (2008), Using the Transportation Planning Process to Support the NEPA Process,

Additional Information

This work is supported by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) under contract number 693JJ321P000004. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in these publications are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.

To find other resources and information on rural transportation and the environment, click here. More tools and information are also available from FHWA here, and from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Center for Environmental Excellence.

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