Federal funding of high speed rail projects is conditioned upon full compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other federal laws. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) often uses tiering to complete the NEPA studies for high-speed rail and other intercity passenger rail projects. Tiering involves two separate rounds of NEPA review. Typically, a Tier 1 study evaluates potential improvements in a lengthy corridor and results in decisions on broad issues such as the need for the project, facility type, and the general location; Tier 2 involves more detailed alignment decisions and development of mitigation measures for individual projects within the corridor. This paper focuses on the use of tiering for high-speed and intercity passenger rail projects. As background for the discussion of tiering, this paper will first discuss: basic NEPA requirements; FRA’s approach to NEPA compliance; and the importance of NEPA compliance in the allocation of competitive grants for high-speed rail projects. The paper will then focus on the issue of tiering. It will describe the legal framework for preparing a tiered NEPA study; how tiering has been used on rail and other non-rail transportation projects; and important issues to consider in developing a tiered study. It will conclude with a list of best practices for developing a tiered NEPA study, focusing in particular on high-speed rail projects.

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