Oregon is famous for clear streams, towering trees, abundant fish and stunning views. Permits, statutes, laws and regulations are the tools that keep these scenic fixtures and enviable habitats safe and intact. Fourteen of them applied to construction on the OTIA III State Bridge Delivery Program, administered by 11 state and federal regulatory agencies that had a valid say in our work.
Individual projects could perhaps afford to wait the six to nine months usually required to apply for and receive permits from each agency in succession. But for a program with hundreds of bridges, such a process might have taken 50 years — and we needed to get the job done in one fifth that time.
That urgency led the bridge program to collaborate with our counterparts in the regulatory agencies and combine the separate environmental statutes and permits into a single set of standards that met all of the agencies’ goals. The resulting programmatic permitting process made it easier for contractors to comply with environmental performance standards and increased their ability to create the most sustainable result, all while saving money.
Programmatic permitting also allowed the bridge program to follow through on our commitment to make the best use of our regulatory partners’ time. We formed a multiagency team — the Programmatic Agreements Reporting and Implementation Team, or PARIT — to oversee the environmental programmatic permitting process, becoming stewards with them of valuable public resources.
In bimonthly meetings the PARIT discussed and permitted bridges, usually at the rate of less than an hour per bridge. Regular contact with one another led to much faster response times and flexibility during design and construction. Potential permit violations or other issues could be resolved efficiently with insight from all appropriate stakeholders.
At annual meetings we reviewed our progress and set future goals for environmental stewardship. Our frequent interaction increased trust, and those bonds paid off in decreased costs, shorter schedules and improved environmental outcomes. Approximately 95 percent of the 208 bridges that used environmental permitting sailed through agency review in fewer than 30 days.
The more members of the PARIT understood each other’s priorities — and challenges — the more we focused on desired outcomes rather than how we’d get there. This flexibility enabled us not only to permit bridges faster but also to see opportunities for enhancement that we might have overlooked if we’d still been operating in silos. For example, decreasing the number of piers in a waterway conveys lots of benefits: It controls scour, so the riverbed doesn’t erode; the stream flows more freely with fewer barriers to collect debris; and there’s less interference with fish migration and spawning.
Whenever it was possible for bridge designers to consider a longer structure that would keep piers out of the water, we were ready with a collective rationale for them doing so. With the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the bridge program developed an environmental performance standard for bat habitat enhancement that showed bridge designers how to replace, maintain or improve suitable roosting habitat on bridge program projects. Several bridges provided notable success stories.
For example, in 2007, ODOT created crevice habitat in the shallow box-beam bridge replacements on Bundle 215 to provide existing mouse-eared bats with a place to roost. Inspectors found piles of guano directly beneath the crevices just a short while after construction, proving that bats were using the structures.
Conservation banking led to restoration of habitat for several native species. We doubled the size of a complex of ponds to protect Oregon chub, listed under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1993. ODOT will contribute to the chubs’ recovery by continuing to maintain this site. Purchase of just over 10 acres near Corvallis, Ore., will provide habitat for Fender’s blue butterflies.
Occasional variances to the standard permit allowed us to take above-and-beyond actions that benefited natural resources. For example, in 2009, variances were granted on the McKenzie River to remove extra riprap from the stream bed and on the Willamette and McKenzie rivers to saw-cut columns without the need for intrusive containment structures. Without these variances, there would have been large disturbances to the stream beds as well as high amounts of turbidity in the water.
Programmatic permitting allowed us to operate efficiently and to flex when we needed to. Environmental requirements change over time, and five years into the program, it became necessary to mitigate the sound effects on fragile fish populations of pile driving underwater. We were able to hit these higher marks and still keep projects on schedule because we had the cooperation of our regulatory colleagues to show us the way.
Taking Advantage of Technology
Before the bridge program began, ODOT generated environmental baseline reports for hundreds of bridge sites to help project design teams avoid or minimize the environmental impacts of construction. The GIS team took advantage of this rare initial investment as the foundation to develop a Web-accessible set of geographic information system data. To build the database, we required contractors to submit any new or modified GIS data as part of their work, a significant change in contracting for both the contractor and agency. GIS staff members helped them through the process with tools and technical support.
With this information, the bridge program could quickly measure its outcomes against environmental performance measures, in streamlining permitting and regulatory compliance, and in monitoring the cumulative impacts of transportation projects statewide. This database has gone on to find new uses in generating rapid, location-specific reports for other state and federal agencies, specifically, to track Oregon’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocations and 2009 Oregon Jobs and Transportation Act projects.
Proactive and Preventive
Dedicated environmental inspectors helped the Construction Engineering and Inspection team resolve potential permitting conflicts and challenges on-site while also providing education in how to better construct a project with the environment in mind. These team members have completed approximately 1,900 inspections since the beginning of the program.
In late 2009, we had our first permit violation, which was noted by our CEI team and immediately reported to the regulatory agencies. Because of the increased trust the agencies had in us after years of collaboration, we were able to come to a quick resolution that provided a greater benefit to the surrounding environment.
During the environmental inspections, approximately 1,670 deficiencies were noted, minor infractions that usually resulted from inexperience or lack of awareness. Deficiencies were not a bad thing — they helped us educate contractors and fix a potential problem before it became a violation. Most deficiencies were related to documentation or lack of erosion and sediment control and were quickly resolved.
The inspectors credit the bridge program’s early and frequent training as a key component of our overall environmental success. In the first several years of the program, we certified more than 400 members of the consultant and contractor companies in Context Sensitive and Sustainable Solutions, or CS3, training. Before construction began on a project, we held environmental stewardship training sessions for all members of the construction company. All program management construction staff and numerous members of the regulatory and resource agencies participated in an annual refresher training, which covered in-water work requirements, the biological opinion and lessons learned.
Result: Faster, Better and Cheaper
In 2009 the bridge program conducted a cost-benefit analysis to determine the return on our investment in programmatic permitting in terms of costs avoided and discovered it is more cost-effective than the traditional process. The ROI of traditional permitting was $.75 for every $1 expended. For programmatic permitting, the return was $3.19 for every $1 expended. The savings resulted primarily from decreased schedule delays and decreased design costs. With a unified process for all regulatory agencies, initial permitting was streamlined and — with a single set of performance standards to aim for — both designer and contractor could deal with changes in the field without time-consuming re-permitting.
At the beginning of the bridge program, we expected that programmatic permitting would save the bridge program $54 million. Taking into account the approximately $23 million spent on the effort to date, the realized savings now exceed $73 million in terms of cost avoided. In terms of impacts avoided, environmental programmatic permitting was invaluable.