SAVANNAH, Ga. – Did you know that every roadway and bridge in the state of Georgia is linked to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?
That's because of a partnership between the Corps and the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT)—the lead state agency for constructing road projects.
"We have a very good, collaborative, working relationship [with the Corps]," said Larry Barnes, GDOT maintenance liaison. "Both parties are willing to share information, conduct joint site visits, and exchange general guidance and experience so that we both can do what is necessary to protect the environment."
Through its Regulatory Program, the Corps must issue permits for any construction or development that may impact streams, wetlands and aquatic resources. This authority comes from Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of dredge or fill material in U.S. waters.
The Corps also must uphold the Rivers and Harbors Act, which ensures that any development in rivers and waterways does not adversely impact federal navigation.
Essentially, any proposed road or bridge project must first receive a permit from the Corps of Engineers to ensure that any impacts to wetlands are first avoided, then minimized, and lastly, compensated.
"First we always seek to avoid any impacts to wetlands or aquatic resources," said Kelly Finch, chief of the Corps' coastal branch. "Then we look at ways we could alter the project to minimize the environmental footprint to the most practicable extent possible. Those impacts we can't avoid must be properly mitigated to ensure no net loss of wetlands."
For federally-funded road projects, the Corps-GDOT partnership also extends to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The FHWA is an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that supports state and local governments in the design, construction and maintenance of the nation's highway system.
Coordination and collaboration
The Corps issued 130 permits for GDOT projects last fiscal year and 526 permits in the last five years. Barnes said that at any given time, GDOT will have between six to 12 projects undergoing permitting with the Corps.
GDOT's current workload is 1,712 approved construction projects at varying stages of development, Barnes said. The agency's total fiscal year 2014 program amount is $2.4 billion in federal, state and local projects.
That equates to a lot of permits.
Joe Rivera is one of three Corps regulators who work solely on GDOT permitting projects. His job is to ensure open communication between the two agencies to improve understanding of the permitting requirements and to ultimately streamline the process.
"We promote early coordination with GDOT to discuss all projects," Rivera said. "This way, we can provide our comments well in advance regarding all issues relating to the permitting process, and provide them with feedback to minimize their impacts to wetlands and stream channels."
Among his key projects, Rivera recently finalized an Individual Permit in January 2014 for the North Gray Bypass in Jones County—one of GDOT's current priority projects. This six-mile corridor will provide freight transport with an alternate route to address the current safety concerns for pedestrians and reduce traffic congestion within the local community.
"We regularly hold Practical Alternative Review meetings on complex projects to discuss concerns with participating agencies," Rivera said. Rivera also coordinates all projects and processes with GDOT on a daily basis.
Workshops and wetland education
One example of agency collaboration is bi-annual workshops with Corps and GDOT employees. The most recent workshop took place Feb. 19 in Macon, Ga., with 45 people in attendance.
"These workshops educate GDOT staff members about the Regulatory Program, to include the application process, jurisdictional waters, types of permits and tools available to assist with application submittals," said Ed Johnson, chief of the Regulatory Piedmont Branch in Morrow, Ga.
"If there are changes within the Regulatory Program, we try to arrange a workshop to inform GDOT of those changes and how they might impact their proposed projects," Johnson said.
Section 214 of the Water Resources and Development Act allows the Corps to accept funds from GDOT to provide priority review of their permit applications. Essentially, it allows the Savannah District to devote three full-time regulatory specialists for GDOT permit reviews.
"WRDA 214 funding allows our project managers to be proactive and build relationships with GDOT staff," Finch said. "It allows a Corps project manager to follow a project from start to finish and to understand the unique needs of each project."
Objective permit decisions
Stan Knight is another Corps regulator who works specifically on GDOT projects. A few of his most recent high-profile projects include the Jimmy DeLoach Parkway project and the Skidaway Island bridge replacement, both in Chatham County. Knight also worked closely with the Corps' Charleston District to permit construction for the Savannah Back River bridge project, which spanned two regulatory jurisdictions in Georgia and South Carolina.
"The biggest challenge is making sure GDOT understands my role as a Corps regulator and not a GDOT employee," Knight said. "My first priority is to ensure that a fair and balanced, non-biased permit decision is made on every permit action."
"Also, I must be sure that my actions as a Corps regulator are in line with our authorized WRDA funding requirements," Knight added.
For example, one requirement is that the Corps must post all Section 214 permitting actions to its public website. Additionally, all Section 214 final permit decisions must be made at least one level above the Corps project manager.
As Georgia continues to maintain, develop and improve its roadways and transportation infrastructure, the partnership with the Corps and GDOT is essential—especially as the Regulatory program adapts to new ways of doing business.
"With Regulatory, changes occasionally occur to our program's current policies," Rivera said. "Being able to quickly shift our way of thinking is important in order to do our job effectively."
For more information about the Savannah District's Regulatory Program, visit www.sas.usace.army.mil/regulatory