Conceptual Design

The Conceptual Design phase includes the advancement of concept plans that were developed during scoping and the quantitative analysis of environmental impacts of the selected alternative. Natural resource agencies are consulted to verify that resource issues are being adequately identified, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document is prepared. Conceptual plans advance the concept plans by adding basic design concepts such as the horizontal and vertical alignments and earthwork. The Conceptual Design phase ends with the development of conceptual plans and the approval of the NEPA document.

As with scoping, there is variability in how different kinds and sizes of projects are progressed through conceptual design. Certain simple projects may advance directly to preliminary or final design, while others may require detailed study of multiple alternatives. Projects with no federal funding can omit the NEPA process altogether. Contact the VTrans Program Manager to confirm the proper procedures for a particular project.

Preliminary Impact Assessment

Conceptual plans show the project footprint and allow a more accurate determination of resource impacts. For example, the square footage of wetland dredge and fill, the volume of floodplain fill, or the acreage of important farmland soils would be quantified. The resource categories that are analyzed generally include the same categories addressed during the scoping phase, but with more detail. Resource ID and impact assessment requirements for NEPA purposes are described in the description of NEPA processes.

Resource Agency Coordination

If resource agencies have not reviewed and commented on detailed project impacts, the conceptual plans should be sent to the appropriate resource agencies for their review and comment. VTrans holds bimonthly environmental resource coordination meetings to present project details and obtain resource agency feedback. Information obtained in these meetings is also used in selecting the Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative (LEDPA). The meetings are attended by internal staff and by representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, ANR, and other agencies as appropriate. Information about the project, along with conceptual plans, are prepared by the Environmental Specialist or consultant and distributed to the resource agencies in advance of these meetings.

A VTrans Project Manager, VTrans Biologist, or VTrans Environmental Specialist may recommend a project for discussion at the VTrans environmental resource coordination Meeting. To request that a project be included on the meeting agenda, contact a VTrans Biologist.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

Following approval of the Scoping Report, the level of NEPA documentation necessary for the project is determined. If impacts are not likely to be “significant” under NEPA, documentation for a Categorical Exclusion (CE) will be prepared. If the magnitude of impacts is uncertain, an Environmental Assessment (EA) will be prepared. If the impacts are likely to be significant, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will be required. The NEPA process is summarized in the NEPA processes page of this website. Detailed guidance for preparing CEs, EAs, and EISs for bridge and highway projects may be found in FHWA’s Technical Advisory T6640.8A, Guidance for Preparing and Processing Environmental and Section 4(f) Documents (1987). FAA and FRA have separate guidance for NEPA processes. The NEPA process, including distribution of the final document, occurs during the Conceptual Design phase.

Federal Highway regulations in 23 CFR 771 include the criteria for the classification of projects under NEPA. Most VTrans projects have modest impacts that meet the criteria for CEs per 23 CFR 771.117. NEPA documentation can be further streamlined for CE level projects, if certain criteria are met, in accordance with the Programmatic Agreement for preparing Categorical Exclusions (PACE). If there is any question as to the level of NEPA documentation required, FHWA makes the determination. The processes described below are typical for projects involving CEs.

The draft CE or PACE is prepared by the Environmental Section or consultants and is submitted to the VTrans Environmental Specialist Supervisor and Project Manager for review. In the case of (non-programmatic) CE’s, VTrans submits the final document to FHWA, with a request for concurrence. The level of detail and complexity of the documentation submitted for non-programmatic CEs depends on the project. Generally the submission includes the following elements, which can be obtained via the manual’s NEPA page:

  • Cover letter to FHWA
  • Environmental Analysis Sheet
  • Wetlands Findings Memo addressing EO 11990 (if wetlands are being impacted)
  • Section 106 documents (see the Section 106 web page)
  • Relevant correspondence regarding rare species occurrence or other issues
  • Signature line for FHWA concurrence

No FHWA concurrence is required for PACE’s; instead, FHWA is notified of the determination, and a quarterly listing of all PACE-eligible actions is submitted to FHWA. The notification submission includes the following elements, which can be obtained via the manual’s NEPA page:

Relevant correspondence regarding rare species occurrence or other issues.

Additional information about the NEPA process can be found here.

Section 4(f)

Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act states that, “It is hereby declared to be the national policy that special effort should be made to preserve the natural beauty of the countryside and public park and recreation lands, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, and historic sites”. Section 4(f) applies to all historic sites but only to publicly owned parks, recreational areas, and wildlife and waterfowl refuges. In addition, Section 4(f) applies only to Department of Transportation actions (FHWA, FAA, etc.).

If any Section 4(f) resources are to be used or acquired for project purposes, the Project Manager will ask the Environmental Section to prepare a Section 4(f) evaluation, which may take the form of an individual or programmatic (nationwide) evaluation or a de minimis determination. The conceptual plans are used to analyze the level of impacts to 4(f) resources, and are provided to FHWA with a 4(f) evaluation, if one is required.

Section 106

If Section 106 resources (historic properties or districts that are on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, or archeologically sensitive sites) are within the project area, a determination of effect on those resources needs to be made. Under the Programmatic Agreement among the Federal Highway Administration, the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the Vermont State Historic Preservation Officer Regarding Implementation of the Federal-Aid Highway Program in Vermont, VTrans staff are responsible for making those determinations for highway projects. If there is any question regarding a determination, a request for concurrence is sent to the Division for Historic Preservation. The Section 106 process occurs during Conceptual Design, when sufficient detail is available to analyze potential impacts.

Plan Reviews

Plan reviews occur throughout the conceptual design process, both internally by the VTrans Environmental Section (and others) and by resource agencies and FHWA. Feedback from resource agencies at this early stage can prevent larger resource impact issues in later stages.