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Environmental Scientist, Jeff Walters hosts Gabe Nelson, PE to discuss environmental services pertaining to transportation projects. During this podcast episode they will discuss the following questions:

  1. What’s the biggest industry issue pertaining to environmental regulations that you’re seeing today (0:19)?
  2.  What are some common environmental hurdles that you and your clients are typically working through (2:47)?
  3.  How does or can the environmental business unit at Snyder support your clients and their projects (7:53)?
  4. What are some foreseeable changes that you anticipate with your client portfolio in the industry as we move forward  (10:11)?
Gabe Nelson, PE

Gabe Nelson, PE

Civil Engineer

Street and Highway Design, Utility Design and Coordination, Digital Project Delivery and Construction Inspection

Jeff Walters

Jeff Walters

Environmental Sciences Group Leader

Wetland & Stream Delineation & Mitigation, 404 Permitting, Natural Resources Surveys, Lake & Stream Restoration

Full Transcript

Jeff Walters(0:19):

Okay, Gabe, what’s the biggest industry issue pertaining to environmental regulations that you’re seeing today?

Gabe Nelson (0:27):

I think sometimes there’s a misunderstanding of what the requirements are for a federal project versus a local project. And it takes some education sometimes on some of our projects just because you don’t have a federally funded project and you maybe aren’t under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, there’s still a lot of things that are still under the NEPA umbrella that don’t go away. There’s still the Clean Water Act (CWA), there’s still Endangered Species Act (ESA). There’s still things you need to worry about, even if you’re spending local dollars. And I think sometimes that’s an education with our clients that these things still take time, because there’s still permitting and things we have to deal with regardless of the funding.

Jeff Walters (1:14)

Yeah, definitely. The funding mechanisms, while they are important, ultimately don’t dictate the need for ESA reviews, CWA reviews, Cultural Resources reviews. Those types of things need to be done regardless of the funding, if there’s the potential for impact to those specific categories. So yeah, you hit the nail on the head there. Educating the clients to make them aware these rules are in place regardless of funding is important, because ultimately it’s our responsibility as consultants to notify our clients of the needs to make sure they have permits in place prior to starting a project. So yeah, education’s important.

Gabe Nelson (2:05):

So that’s where we rely on the environmental staff in the transportation group. Consulting the experts early. Get a big map out there. Try to look at what potential environmental resources there could be, so that we identify those things up front and then can build that planning into our schedules. And then we can talk to our clients about what potentially we’re dealing with as far as time frame, as far as work effort, and that sort of thing. So we can develop their project on the schedule they want to develop it on. So that’s definitely important for us.

Jeff Walters (2:37):

Sure. Yeah. That active and open line of communication with the client, the consultant and the regulatory officials that are ultimately permitting the project is important. Okay. What are some common environmental hurdles that you and your clients are typically working through?

Gabe Nelson (2:52):

Something that comes up on almost every project, where we’re cutting trees of any kind, is obviously the bat habitat. That’s kind of a simple one. And it seems like it’s something that comes up all the time. Having that October to March window where we can cut trees for bad habitat, that’s something that really needs to be developed into the project schedule really early. Because if you’re not ready to let a project in January, well you can’t have your contractor out there cutting trees in February or March to meet those deadlines and you definitely don’t want to delay a project, so you can’t even start it until October. So a lot of times, we’re getting into either you have to start planning the project early enough so you can get it out on the street and have the contractor do that as part of the project. Or you really have to work with that property owner and your client. Maybe they have public works staff that can go out and drop trees early. If they’re on private property, you need to have their permission to work through that. So that’s something, again, in planning really early on you have to think about to make sure you’re building that into your project schedules.

The other thing is just identifying what permits are necessary, early. So you go out and you do the wetland delineations very early in the project. You kind of do a very preliminary design and you find out the impact area of your project and then go out and do that field work. So then,you know if you have a wetland impacts for example, or what other kinds of permits you’re going to need. Because a lot of times, one of the hurdles that we overcome is just the long review time frames that some of these things take. And they’re kind of unknown time frames too. I mean, we kind of have ideas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have it back in 90 days every time or six months every time. So you have to build those into your project schedules and that can be difficult to plan for.

Jeff Walters (4:58):

Bat habitat surveys are something we can do a year around. So, just like you said, if we can get that done early on in the process, especially when we’re dealing with transportation projects. These public projects that have a very set in stone letting process. Especially when we’re talking about DOT projects and even a lot of the local municipalities also have that letting schedule. To be able to know when they’re going to let that project, when the final design is, and working backwards so early on we can figure out where we need to complete these studies within your design parameters in order to get the trees cut down.

We’ve had instances where in the 11th hour a municipality came to us and said, we got this road and it’s gotta be constructed here in April. We’re really behind the eight ball, we’ve spent a lot of time. We can still get out there. We can complete the bat habitat survey and we can provide some advice to the municipality to let them be aware that you can still get those trees cut down within the time frame. Maybe you’ll have a contractor come in under a different schedule, besides the prime road contractor to come in and do the work, and get those trees cut. We don’t advise that. We’d like to get in early if we can, but that’s one way around it.

And then your second topic permitting, every project anymore has some type of environmental permit. There could be just the simple stormwater pollution plan and NPDES permit for construction activities, all the way up to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers individual permit. There could be a significant additional permitting requirements with individual permits such as, Endangered Species act, cultural resources survey, regulated materials, everything that really falls under the umbrella of NEPA. So again, when the environmental services team comes in and works with you early on in that planning phase and that early concept phase, we can help speed that process up for you and ultimately get the client to stay on their schedule.

Gabe Nelson (7:12):

Well absolutely. Identifying those resources early is important, because part of all of these environmental laws is you’re supposed to be trying to avoid those impacts as much as you can. You can’t avoid the impacts, if you don’t know what you’re impacting. So you really have to identify all that stuff early. Maybe you can slide a road over five feet and avoid some impacts to wetlands, or avoid some trees, or some other things that as long as you identify it early in the process, you can make that permitting process much easier.

Jeff Walters (7:46):

Yup, that’s right. So you’ve talked about this a little bit, we’ve had this discussion, but how does or can the environmental business unit at Snyder support your clients and their projects? What really stands out as a need.

Gabe Nelson (8:02):

It is that early planning, so getting you guys involved early and then you work with the regulatory agencies so much more than we do as individuals. I think it helps that the environmental group has formed those relationships. You talk to those people often. You deal in their world and kind of have you guys lead that coordination with the individual agencies. Versus 150 different people at Snyder and Associates trying to talk to the agencies on any given project. I think talking with one voice and keeping that consistent communication. I think that’s very helpful from our standpoint.

Jeff Walters (8:45):

Yeah, I would agree. I think having that single point of contact with the regulatory agencies really provides value to the team as well as to the client, ultimately. I can think back at some of the projects that you and I have worked on, Gabe, where had it maybe been a different team? The relationships might not be there. Where we can talk to the Corps of Engineers early on and get their feedback to know what type of permit we’re going to need. Or persuade them in a manner that let’s try to go after that nationwide permit for a particular bridge project or a long roadway project. Or segment it out, so we have some different phases and work through the permitting process.

One that really stands out is Stagecoach over in West Des Moines. We talked to the Corps early on. They initially thought it was going to be an individual permit. Through good and healthy discussions with them, we got it down to a nationwide permit, which sped up the process immensely to keep the City of West Des Moines and their project on time. Had we not been able to do that, it could have been a year or more later before the city actually got their bridge and their approaches built. So yeah, those relationships are very important. What are some foreseeable changes that you anticipate with your client portfolio in the industry as we move forward?

Gabe Nelson (10:17):

One of the things we’ve kind of heard in the news and the Metro area, it seems like, the light industrial development is picking up. These businesses like Amazon building facilities, where they have more local distribution to get it out to people faster. As that development picks up, there’s always a transportation component. Usually cities have to upgrade some infrastructure, because with those facilities transportation is a major issue being able to get goods away from the facilities efficiently. We see cities participating in a lot of those projects and probably that part of the sector will continue to drive more transportation projects.

The other thing everybody right now is talking about is COVID-19 and the economy and how that affects things moving forward. It seems like for the most part the state DOT and local cities projects that we have ongoing right now, they seem to be moving forward, moving ahead. There’s still some question down the road of what impact this has on the road use tax fund and sales taxes and it’s going to do for transportation projects further out. I don’t think we know what that picture looks like yet, but in the near term it looks like projects are moving forward. It’s definitely something that we’re watching and we’re concerned about, because transportation projects are generally a major part of any kind of economic recovery. It’ll be interesting to see, how those projects move forward and how communities develop those projects moving forward.

Jeff Walters (12:03):

Sure. Yeah. You mentioned transportation projects with light industrial developments. Fortunately here at Snyder, the environmental group has had decades worth of experience on that through our land development business unit. So we’re very well versed in having that private-public partnerships and an Amazon or some other private entity coming to a city or a county with a plan. And ultimately the transportation component becomes a major piece to the project. When we’re dealing with say the Corps of Engineers or Iowa Department of Natural Resources, while they are generally interested in the roadway or the industrial development or just the development in general, they’re really looking at the big picture. What’s the footprint of the entire project? We’ve had clients try to persuade or want us to persuade, one of the regulatory agencies into, you know, let’s try to phase it. Well, we’ve learned over time that again, the Corps of Engineers, DNR and other agencies, they want the big picture there. They don’t want to circumvent permits.

They want to make sure the process is efficient, so they can permit the entire footprint of the project. And not have to piece meal, because ultimately that’s going to run a project into delays and in additional hardships. We don’t want to put our private clients as well as our municipal clients in harm’s way.

And then you mentioned the current status we’re in right now with the pandemic and I certainly agree with some of these big transportation projects that are in the works and on the way those were big stimulus type projects that help, recoup the economy and get government and businesses back in gear. So I’m with you. Hopefully this goes away sooner than later and we’re back to business.

Gabe Nelson (14:13):

Well, and you mentioned stimulus. You know, there’s been rumors of some type of stimulus type package similar to what we had in 2009, after this try to stimulate the economy. And I think we did learn some lessons from the recovery act from before and they want shovel ready projects. And that ended up becoming a lot of pavement rehabilitation projects, because they didn’t need permits or they didn’t need right away. They were easy to clear and easy to move forward quickly. I think if there is another round of stimulus. Our clients will be looking at those types of projects they may have on the back burner or they maybe did a little initial planning for maybe consider looking at what the environmental permitting should be or could be. Maybe there’s some that will require permits, but there are nationwide permits so we can get those moving forward right now. So then when we do know what a stimulus looks like a few months out or more than that, well we’ve got those permits in hand and we have a shovel ready project that we can move forward with versus we see the program and then we decide what projects fit into that. So I think some proactive planning now and we can certainly assist our clients with doing that, would put them in a good position to get stimulus funds if they are available.

Jeff Walters (15:48):

Yeah, I agree. I think having both types of projects, the shovel ready type projects where you’ve got pavement rehab, minor projects that can keep people going, but also making sure that there are some of those maybe longer term projects that were on the back burner that maybe get moved forward that will require the preliminary and final design as well as, as the environmental component as well. On the same topic as funding. I think it’s important to recognize too that there may be opportunities that will remain to be seen, but having these funds go through the SWAP process with Iowa DOT, that’s a process that we have been working on at Snyder now for a few years. We’ve had a few projects go through the SWAP process that I think have been pretty successful.

It takes away the NEPA component while still requiring a similar level of documentation excluding, the environmental assessment or categorical exclusion. But we still have to go through the same type of permitting, complete our wetland and stream delineation to get the 404 permit, complete the bat habitats as well as T & E reviews to make sure that we’d get Section 7 consultation completed with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, checking for regulated material sites such as gas stations and dry cleaners and those types of facilities that could cause harm to the soil and groundwater quality beneath project sites. So I’m optimistic that we can move that direction with funding so that we can really eliminate a lot of red tape, get dart clients, our municipal clients, especially the opportunity for funding so they can get out and get these projects done quickly.

Gabe Nelson (17:40):

Yes, absolutely. You mentioned a lot of those studies up front. Another one we have come up a lot is just the architectural and archeological reviews. Just understanding what is going to be required upfront because we’ve had some projects where we get surprised a little bit by the level of field work that’s necessary and there are certain timeframes when you can actually do that field work. So even, especially with the SWAP project, since it’s the SWAP fundings, a few years old now, but it’s, it’s still a little new. So I think there was some misunderstanding upfront of what that SWAP meant. Yes, it takes away some of the federal component, but again, there’s still those permits there. So really, that’s a consultation with the environmental staff and the Iowa DOT of what is really required by that particular SWAP funding for that particular project.

Jeff Walters (18:36):

I liked to tell our municipal clients regarding SWAP and an environmental process that think of it as something that the private developer would do and what they would be required in order to complete their project. A private developer isn’t going through a full blown NEPA documentation to get a project moved forward. They’re doing the basics and the basics are the phase one environmental site assessment, the wetland and stream delineation, the habitat surveys, cultural resources surveys, there could be a smattering of other different types of documents, but it’s really up to us to properly inform our municipal clients. Here’s what you should do to move forward because you don’t want to get caught in the 11th hour without a permit. And since we’ve gone through the SWAP process a few times, we’ve been pretty successful with it and I think we can continue to have those relationships and conversations with our clients so that when SWAP is available to them, we’re ready to go. So any other final thoughts on environmental issues as they pertain to our municipal transportation clients?

Gabe Nelson (19:50):

Talking with some of the other PMs in the transportation group, one of the things we’ve had come up on a few different projects too is going through those architectural and archeological reviews. What requirements are going to be on the construction of the project. We’ve had in some cases with architectural reviews, we have of course have historical properties, we’re not really effecting the property, but we’re doing construction next to them. There’s been some fairly substantial costs involved in vibration monitoring, things like that. Just to make sure that you follow through on what you said you would do during the preliminary design process and that’s not affect those resources and some of those costs can be quite substantial so it’s understand those costs early and then make sure you’re developing those into your costs estimates. So your clients aren’t surprised by those construction costs after bidding. But other than that, I can’t really think of any other issues.

Jeff Walters (20:46):

Sure. Yeah. Your point regarding the archeological and architectural surveys and the additional studies that may be required that come out of the findings of those reports really is a focal point, not just for cultural, but for all environmental related documentation is as our state and federal rules and policies are ever changing, they’re getting tighter and it does make projects sometimes get tougher to be permitted. And it’s our responsibility to stay up on top of those rules and regulations so that we can inform our clients well ahead of the game. That here’s what you need to do and here are the possible mitigation measures that may be required to get your project to be approved by these regulatory agencies.

So going back to something we talked about initially is that good communication with the client, good communication with the team and a strong relationship and communication with those regulatory agencies so that we understand the rules, regulations, and policies in order to move the projects forward.

Gabe Nelson (21:57):

Absolutely.

Jeff Walters (20:59):

All right, well that’s our time.