Transportation planning and project development reflect the desires of communities, including consideration of the impacts of roads on the natural and human environments. Federal transportation law recognizes the important role of the states and local communities in planning, building, and maintaining roads. To understand the legal requirements concerning ecology and the environment, it is necessary to understand the structure for transportation planning and project development. The processes through which a road gets planned, built, and maintained provide opportunities and obligations to incorporate ecological concerns.
There are substantial differences between transportation planning and project execution or development with respect to the governmental entities involved and their legal obligations for environmental or ecological resources. Transportation planning encompasses the processes under which states, regions, and localities plan their desired regional transportation systems for periods up to and sometimes exceeding 20 years. Although environmental issues must be considered in transportation planning, the only important mandatory requirement concerns conformity with air pollution standards. As described more fully below, the federal government reviews transportation plans solely to ensure protection of air quality, not to protect any other environmental resources, such as water quality.
In contrast, project execution or development includes all the work done to implement a particular road project, such as a new road, road improvement, or other discrete endeavors. Projects are developed and implemented with detailed, site-specific evaluations of engineering, costs, safety, transportation mobility, and environmental concerns. Generally, the state, city, or county government manages a specific project. Most of the federal environmental requirements apply to project development and implementation rather than transportation planning. In project development, various ecological issues are addressed. An excellent summary of the transportation planning process and environmental requirements is found in Blaesser et al. (2003). Additional information can be found in FWHA (2004b).