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Tennessee Environmental Procedures Manual

Chapter 7: Public Involvement Process

7.3 TDOT's Public Involvement Plan

7.3.1 Overview of the Plan

TDOT's Community Relations Division has primary responsibility for coordinating the Department's outreach program, and ensuring that the public outreach process used in a specific project meets the Department's standards. The Division consists of community relations staff in the headquarters office as well as Community Relations Officers in each of TDOT's four regional offices. The Regional Community Relations Officer works closely with the headquarters staff to coordinate the public involvement process used for each project in their respective region.

TDOT's 2007 Public Involvement Plan update outlines public involvement considerations and procedures to be used by TDOT staff on all federal aid projects. A similar process will be followed for all state-funded projects. The Plan, which meets the federal requirements, identifies TDOT's public involvement philosophy and objectives, describes the five levels of public involvement activities, and identifies a series of performance measures that are used to evaluate the public involvement activities of projects under each level. The appendices of the Plan provide useful information on public notice requirements and procedures, meeting and hearing definitions, checklists for meetings and hearings, media strategies and procedures, as well as sample documents, a list of environmental justice resources, and a example public comment disposition form.

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7.3.2 Levels of Public Involvement

TDOT's public involvement process has five levels of public involvement, which are used to establish minimum levels of public involvement for projects. The discussion in the Plan describes the type of projects that fit into each classification and the public involvement activities that are required (at a minimum) for that level of project. The Plan also offers suggestions for enhanced public involvement activities and describes the timing for the public involvement activities outlined in the Plan.

The level of public involvement varies by project type and public interest or controversy. The five levels of public involvement activity as defined in the Plan are:

  • Level One - These projects pose minimal or no impact to the surrounding community, require minimal or no right-of-way acquisition, will be of short duration and pose no disturbance to local communities during construction (e.g., median removal, signalization and intersection realignment). Also included in this category are those unfunded projects for which a planning study, such as a TPR, is being prepared. (An unfunded planning study is considered to be a preliminary report to determine whether a project will proceed. If/when it does move forward, it will be reassigned to Level Two, Three, Four or Five, as appropriate.)
  • Level Two - These projects include those defined as Categorical Exclusions (CE) by the FHWA, or classified as corridor feasibility or other general planning projects.
  • Level Three - Projects in this category constitute those that require completion of an Environmental Assessment (EA), or other environmental documentation (e.g., Part 150 documents related to aviation facilities). Generally speaking, these projects would have some impact, but not significant, and would be of moderate size, requiring less time for planning, design and construction than a project classified as Level 4 or 5.
  • Level Four - These projects are those that would require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to be completed, or are large-scale efforts in terms of both design and construction. Generally speaking, these projects would substantially impact local communities, require substantial acquisition of right-of-way, and require more time for planning, design and construction.
  • Level Five - This category involves statewide or systems-level efforts undertaken by the Department, including the Statewide Long Range Transportation Plan, the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), the Statewide Rail Plan, Statewide Aviation Plan and Statewide Transit Plan.

TDOT staff will determine the level of public involvement needed for a project on a case-by-case basis. In keeping with the Department's commitment to CSS, an appropriate level of public involvement will be implemented for all projects. The CSS approach implies the development of an appropriately scaled public involvement plan for all projects and TDOT's 2007 Public Involvement Plan suggests that a public involvement plan/strategy be developed by an interdisciplinary team for projects that have the potential for adverse socioeconomic or environmental impacts. An interdisciplinary team would include representatives from TDOT divisions, as appropriate (e.g., Planning, Environmental, Design, Right-of-Way, Construction, Maintenance, Community Relations, Title VI, and Project Management), as well as FHWA. For large and/or complex/controversial projects, the public involvement plan should also be developed with input from the public and other affected stakeholders.

Environmental Division staff and consultants should obtain a copy of the plan, either on-line at, or from the Community Relations Division, and familiarize themselves with the process.

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7.3.3 When and to What Level Should the Public be Involved

As discussed in Chapter 4, early coordination with the public, as well as with federal, state, and local agencies, is an essential ingredient in the project development process. Early coordination helps in determining the appropriate level of documentation, developing the project's purpose and need discussion, determining alternatives, identifying issues of concern, the scope of the environmental resources that would be affected by the project, permit requirements, possible mitigation measures, and opportunities for environmental enhancements. SAFETEA-LU (Section 6002.139) requires that as early as possible in the environmental review process, the public be provided with opportunities for involvement in defining the purpose and need and the range of alternatives to be considered, before final decisions on purpose and need and alternatives are made. The level of public involvement is project specific and dependent on a number of variables, including class of action; complexity of the project; and public interest or concern about the project.

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7.3.4 Who is the "Public"?

FHWA defines the public broadly as "all individuals or groups who are potentially affected by transportation decisions." This includes anyone who resides in, has interest in, or does business in a given area which may be affected by transportation decisions. ISTEA specifically identified various segments of the public and the transportation industry that must be given the opportunity to participate in planning for transportation projects. Public and private transportation providers (e.g., school bus, special services vans, or bus), as well as persons traditionally underserved by existing transportation systems, should be encouraged to participate in the public involvement process.

The Community Relations Division staff and, as applicable, an interdisciplinary team, will review the project scope and preliminarily assess project impacts on the community and property owners and make recommendations regarding who comprises the "public" on a specific project (e.g., property owners, special interest groups, businesses, schools or road users). Mapping data using GIS can assist in determining if possible language barriers or environmental justice issues may need to be addressed. The Project Manager or his/her designee should consult with the local government to seek advice on community issues and concerns, as well as suggestions of parties known to have an interest in the project, that may otherwise have been overlooked by TDOT. The Community Relations Division, Project Manager or lead Environmental planner (or consultant) should maintain a list of the names and mailing addresses, as well as email addresses, of the interested public, which can be updated as needed throughout the project. The responsibility for maintaining this list should be clearly identified at the beginning of the project.

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7.3.5 Pre-NEPA Public Involvement

Public involvement occurs prior to the commencement of NEPA, such as during the development of long range transportation plans or during the TPR phase. TDOT's Public Involvement Plan outlines the process for public involvement during these early stages. The Environmental Division is invited and division staff often attend TPR field reviews, particularly for larger projects.

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7.3.6 NEPA Public Involvement

Public involvement should begin early and continue throughout NEPA and the project development process. Initial Coordination

When a commitment is made by TDOT to proceed with a project into the NEPA process, often one of the first actions taken is called "initial (or early) coordination." This task is discussed in Chapter 4, Early Coordination. The Environmental Division maintains a list of local, state and federal offices and agencies to which the initial coordination package must be sent. Other entities, such as special interest groups are also included on the Division's initial coordination list. Local contacts may identify other parties that should be sent an initial coordination package. The cover letter of the initial coordination package itself may also request that the recipient provide names of other parties that may have an interest in the project. The package will include a description of the project and potential issues, as well as a project map. The Initial Coordination process is not discussed specifically in TDOT's Public Involvement Plan. Public Involvement or Coordination Plan

Under TDOT's 2007 Public Involvement Plan, the development of a project-specific public involvement plan is required for projects falling into Level Three (EAs) and Level Four (EISs). As mentioned earlier, the CSS approach implies the development of an appropriately scaled public involvement plan for all projects. The minimum requirements for public involvement plans for Level Three and Level Four projects are specified in the 2007 Public Involvement Plan.

SAFETEA-LU requires the establishment of a plan for coordinating public and agency participation and comment during the environmental review process. The term, "coordination plan, " replaces the term "public involvement plan" for EISs for which a Notice of Intent was issued after August 10, 2005. The coordination plan is developed early in the environmental review process, and identifies opportunities for input from the public and participating agencies. See Section 4.1.4, Coordination Plan, for more details on the purpose and components of the required coordination plan.

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7.3.7 NEPA Meetings and Hearings

During the NEPA phase, meetings or hearings or both are conducted. The timing, number, and need for NEPA meetings and hearings will be decided by the Project Manager, Community Relations Division staff, and/or multidisciplinary team. Environmental Division staff will participate in the multi-disciplinary team during development of a public involvement strategy or plan for a project that will be developed pursuant to NEPA.

How do public meetings and hearings differ? The major difference is that hearings must be held to fulfill regulatory requirements, while public meetings are optional events that can be tailored to specific agency and community needs.

Public Meetings are held to present information to the public and obtain public input. Public meetings can be held at any time during the process, they are used to disseminate information, provide a setting for public discussion, and get feedback from the community. They can be tailored to specific community needs and can be either formal or informal (e.g., a meeting could be held with a small group of neighbors or a special interest group, or a project could warrant a community-wide meeting).

Public Hearings are held to meet federal requirements, which include the holding of one or more public hearings or the opportunity for such hearing at a convenient time and place when:

  • A project will require significant amounts of right-of-way or substantially changes the layout or functions of connecting roads or the facility to be improved;
  • A project has a substantial adverse impact on abutting property, otherwise has a significant social, economic, environmental or other effect; or
  • If FHWA determines that holding a public hearing is in the public interest.

23 CFR 771.111 requires that public hearings be held for the DEIS document once it has been circulated for public comment. An opportunity to request a public hearing must be provided for an EA once the document has been circulated. The purpose of the hearing is to gather community comments and positions from all interested parties for inclusion in the public record. Public input, along with the findings of the NEPA document, is then used by TDOT to select a project alternative, whether it be a build or no-build alternative. Public notices must be placed in a general circulation newspaper citing the time, date, and location of the hearing. TDOT must submit a transcript of each public hearing and a certification that a required hearing was held or evidence that a hearing opportunity was offered. The transcript will include transcription of all oral comments received at the hearing and all written comments received either at the hearing or within the official comment period.

Meetings and hearings have these basic features:

  • Anyone may attend, including individuals or representatives of interest groups;
  • Meetings are held as needed or desired, while hearings are held after the approval of the NEPA document and prior to making a decision;
  • Hearings require an official hearing officer (court reporter) and official public record, while meetings do not;
  • Hearings have a specific time period in which comments received will be eligible for inclusion in the official public record, meetings may or may not generate an official record. As a rule, community-wide meetings are likely to generate an official public record. Small meetings with public officials or special interest groups are often summarized in the environmental document; and
  • Community comments are recorded in written form (either by the commenter or the court reporter if one is available) as input to an agency.
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7.3.8 Notification of Meetings and Hearings

Notices for NEPA related public meetings and hearings will be in the form of either a legal notice in the classified section of project-area newspapers or as a newspaper display advertisement. The Environmental Division planner, Project Manager, or his/her designee will prepare the materials needed for the notice:

  • General project location map; and
  • Text for the notice that explains the purpose of the meeting/hearing and its location(s) and time.

The draft notice and map must be submitted to the Regional Community Relations Officer, with a copy to the Regional Survey and Design and Right-of-Way offices. A cover memo should request the review and approval of the notice and that it be forwarded to the Legal Office, which will arrange for placing the advertisement in local papers.

Other optional means of notifying the public of an impending meeting include:

  • Flyers posted in local businesses - the flyer would be developed by the planner and provided to the Project Manager or other appropriate staff in the regional office (e.g., public involvement coordinator). A sample flyer is in Appendix F [pdf 627 kb];
  • "Smart signs" posted in highway right-of-way along the project corridor - the message or sign would be developed by the planner and provided to the Project Manager or other appropriate staff in the regional office; and
  • News release for community newspapers/local radio stations - the planner, project manager or designee would work with the Public Information Officer in the Community Relations Division.

For an EA for which TDOT is not planning to hold a public hearing, a notice of opportunity must be published in local newspapers and posted on TDOT's website in order to offer the public the opportunity to request a hearing. If no requests are received, TDOT will place a notice in a local newspaper advising the public that although no public hearing will be held, the NEPA document is available locally for review and comment.

It is important to identify persons or groups in the project area that likely have an interest in the project and that may miss a meeting notice due to language barriers or other reasons. Should such populations be identified, notification materials should be developed in a second language, and/or other types of outreach to such populations should be undertaken (e.g., posting notices at community centers or local businesses, and arranging for announcements to be made at churches, etc.).

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7.3.9 Public Hearing Handout

The Environmental Division planner will prepare a draft meeting handout for review by the Project Manager, the Community Relations Officer, and/or the multidisciplinary team. The handout will contain a project summary, list of potential impacts, project map and description of TDOT's relocation procedures. Once approved, the planner will finalize the summary and make the appropriate number of copies needed for the meeting. A sample handout is in Appendix F [pdf 627 kb].

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