Project Memorandum Writer: A new way to do environmental review

Kathryn O'Brien, AICP, Associate, and Mike Marti, P.E., Principal, SRF Consulting Group, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota

If your eyes have ever crossed at the thought of filling out a government form, if you have ever suffered anxiety staring down a blank screen before writing an environmental document, then you'll be interested in checking out a new tool developed by Minnesota's Local Road Research Board (LRRB) and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT). Called Project Memorandum Writer, this interactive, web-based tool was designed to walk a user through the process of developing a project memorandum that meets federal regulations. Just as TurboTax prompts taxpayers through the twists and turns of tax code, this interactive software asks users questions and, in return, produces a final document that enters all the data in a format that is consistent with Mn/DOT and FHWA guidelines for writing project memoranda.

It all began when a staff person at Mn/DOT's Division of State Aid suggested that a simpler and more streamlined means of developing project memoranda should be developed using available system technology. This suggestion was framed in the form of a problem statement submitted to the LRRB's Research Implementation Committee, which solicits problem statements from individuals involved with planning and engineering for local (city, county, and township) roads in Minnesota. These problem statements form the basis for selecting projects for research implementation, the objective of which is to make information available and to transfer research results into practical applications.

The initial suggestion was further refined with assistance from a consultant. Developing an interactive, web-based platform was the direction received for project managers to work with; however, other than this, there was not much precedent to go on. Simply put, no other state department of transportation, or the FHWA, has developed a program taking a user from a blank page to a finished environmental document.

One of the first decisions made by the technical committee guiding this project was to decide what capabilities Project Memorandum Writer could and should have. In other words, what could be reasonably accomplished given the limits of the technology, the anticipated users, the eventual owners and administrators of the tool (Mn/DOT's Division of State Aid) and most importantly, the limits of the budget? It was decided that the first phase of Project Memorandum Writer would be developed to manage relatively straightforward, checklist-style project memoranda. Initially, the tool would not be equipped to deal with projects that had any potential for substantial right-of-way, cultural or historic resource, environmental, or other issues requiring minimization or mitigation—the goal was to develop a tool that worked well on the basic projects and expand later for more complex projects. Even with these limitations, Mn/DOT's Division of State Aid estimates that about 80 percent of all project memoranda in Minnesota will be able to be completed using Project Memorandum Writer.

Project Memorandum Writer has been designed to take a user through three distinct steps in the environmental documentation process. The first step addresses the question, "What, if any, environmental documentation must I complete to access federal funds?" Answering this question is accomplished by filling out a screening questionnaire consisting of about 10 questions based on establishing the type of environmental documentation, as well as establishing whether the user's project is appropriate for use in Project Memorandum Writer.

Once a user has completed the first step of screening his or her project, they are either given permission to access Project Memorandum Writer or directed to State Aid to confirm eligibility and/or type of needed environmental documentation. Next, a user proceeds to the second step in the process, actually using the tool to generate a project memorandum. This core functionality is accomplished by moving through several screens of information that prompt users to provide details of their proposed project, including type, purpose and need, alternatives considered, and design. At the end of this step, users are directed to move into the final step of the process, which is to save the output of Project Memorandum Writer to a word-processing program for the purposes of editing, printing, and submitting to Mn/DOT's Division of State Aid for final approval.

The spring 2006 construction season will be the first widespread release of Project Memorandum Writer. Before this time, the tool had been tested (and subsequently refined) as both an Alpha and Beta test version with city and county engineers participating from around Minnesota. In March 2006, Mn/DOT State Aid staff invited all preparers with project memoranda for this season to log on and use Project Memorandum Writer.

The hope is that this tool will expedite the project development process for preparers and for State Aid staff as reviewers. Reviewers have already expressed enthusiasm for the tool while in its Beta test form, with one saying that a project memorandum, developed using Project Memorandum Writer, was so organized and the information so complete that he assumed the preparer must have taken a "crash course" on how to write a project memorandum.

Eventually, Rick Kjonaas, Mn/DOT Division of State Aid and the leader of this project, would like to see Project Memorandum Writer enter a paperless world, enabling the completion, submission, and approval of project memoranda entirely online. This advancement would require approval from FHWA and also modifications to the program as it currently exists. However, State Aid is committed to realizing this goal. Julie Skallman, Director of Mn/DOT's Division of State Aid, stresses that her office is "committed to realizing efficiencies, using technology as a means of making our customers' job easier."

The goal is to enable future versions of Project Memorandum Writer to manage attachments, including graphics, maps, coordination letters from resource agencies, and other information. Additionally, Project Memorandum Writer may be expanded to generate forms that can be used as part of resource agency coordination—or perhaps to cover other types of project documentation, such as Environmental Assessments. In any event, the development of this unprecedented productivity tool is a confident first step into a future in which project preparers and reviewers of environmental documentation use web-based technology to expedite and manage project development.

Check out Project Memorandum Writer for yourself, online at http://www.pmwriter.dot.state.mn.us/.

Kathryn O'Brien was involved as a project manager working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Local Road Research Board to develop the PM Writer tool. She has worked in many aspects of transportation and environmental planning. Her work focuses on surveying techniques, public involvement and market research. She can be reached at (763) 249-6787 or kobrien@srfconsulting.com.

Mike Marti has worked in many aspects of transportation-related research, technology transfer and research implementation. He serves as the Principal Investigator for the Minnesota's Local Road Research Board Research Implementation project and, at the national level, has worked with the Transportation Research Board and the Local Technical Assistance Program in developing and delivering technology transfer tools on pavement preservation, technology transfer and market research. He can be reached at (763) 475-0010 or mmarti@srfconsulting.com.