When society looks back on important moments in the transportation sector’s history, the second decade of the 21st century will no doubt be high on the list. Not only has the growth of electric vehicles and the development of green biofuels been a hallmark of the period, but an influx of unprecedented transportation funding will surely leave its mark.

The signing of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) early in the decade will infuse more than $700 billion into critical infrastructure, research projects and related initiatives that will affect the transportation sector. Nearly half of this funding will be used to design and construct roads and bridges.

More than 45,000 bridges in the United States are rated as “in poor condition.” When it comes to replacing aging highway infrastructure, balancing project needs with project impacts can be a challenge. But a well-developed National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document can help. That’s why Burns & McDonnell takes a customized approach to the NEPA process.

Customized EA Approach Builds Confidence in the Midwest

The NEPA process begins when an action that affects federal resources, such as a major proposed transportation project, could have a significant impact on the surrounding environment. In such cases, an environmental document, known as an environmental assessment (EA), is needed.

A recent high-profile Missouri highway reconstruction project demonstrates what a difference our approach to developing an EA can make.

The John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil Memorial Bridge in Kansas City, Missouri, is a triple-arch bridge that serves as a key connector between downtown Kansas City, Missouri, and communities north of the Missouri River. At nearly 70 years old, the bridge has numerous structural deficiencies and has reached the end of its life cycle. To improve connectivity in the region, a new bridge needed to be constructed by the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) in cooperation with Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO), to improve connectivity in the region.

Plans for this bridge were in the works long before BIL funding was available, but the project owners were receiving other federal support and had to follow federal requirements throughout the multiphased planning and construction process. This included the development of an EA.

The EA process for the Buck O’Neil Bridge helped shape MoDOT’s approach to a $220 million fixed-price, design-build project. Here are a few key ways we helped MoDOT develop the EA and successfully navigate the NEPA process for the project.

Deep bench of on-staff knowledgeable specialists.
It was important to have on our team experienced professionals in bridge, roadway and traffic engineering, as well as in environmental services, permitting, right-of-way acquisition, aviation, archaeology and cultural resources. As was the case for the Buck O’Neil Bridge project, whenever MoDOT considers construction on a site that may be considered a historic settlement, archaeologists must be on hand to see that cultural resources are not impacted or that impacts are appropriately mitigated.

Because the Buck O’Neil EA process revealed historic elements might be present on the proposed site, before construction began, cultural resource specialists from Burns & McDonnell dug some trenches and made a few discoveries. The team located a building foundation dating back to the 1800s. With the discovery of the foundation came the discovery of important historical artifacts. The archaeologists on our team quickly determined how to assess and document the objects in place, and then removed the items for further study and curation. Construction on the project was able to proceed without delay.

Proven ability to recognize and minimize surprises.
Anticipating problems is a part of every successful transportation project. By raising critical questions throughout the process it’s possible to minimize surprises that can delay or derail an undertaking. Case in point: Major river bridge projects like Buck O’Neil often involve coordination with levee districts and railroads. The EA process should be used to identify and document potential project impacts to these stakeholders long before these impacts become serious issues that could lead to scheduling concerns, construction cost increases and potential legal action. Ongoing collaborative teamwork and communication — starting as early as the EA phase — are necessary to identify and mitigate risks and minimize project surprises.

Priority attention to stakeholder engagement.
The time spent during the EA process understanding stakeholders’ concerns and communicating openly and effectively with everyone who could be impacted encourages early buy-in and supports project delivery success by establishing a well-coordinated information flow. In the case of the Buck O’Neil Bridge, the EA team examined how the project would impact a nearby airport, as well as residents and businesses in adjacent communities. Additionally, several agencies needed to be kept informed about EA findings and ongoing plans, including the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard and Federal Aviation Administration.

During the EA process, factors that had to be considered and communicated consistently and effectively with these multiple audiences included: flood plain and levee system encroachment; construction and traffic noise levels; river navigation and airspace requirements; park and trail connectivity; and the impact of the project on historic, architectural, and archaeological resources. Additional factors included potential hazardous sites; environmental justice considerations that impacted the health, economic and social interests of minority, low-income and tribal populations; the number of properties that would have to be acquired for one alternative versus another; and how traffic would be impacted depending on route.

Without effective communication and collaboration with all who could potentially be impacted, the project likely would not have moved forward without major challenges.

Long-term Value of the NEPA Process

As more funding flows into communities and large transportation projects take shape, EAs and similar NEPA documents will be needed to help identify the optimal solutions for achieving transportation goals. A high-quality EA document can save time and money and help lead to project success by accurately evaluating the impacts of a project on a number of factors. including historic resources, mobility, community facilities, residents, businesses and public spaces.


The Buck O’Neil Bridge project is a prime example of how a high-quality, customized EA approach can help effectively inform bridge, roadway and transportation projects. Discover how working with an integrated team can help make your next project a success.

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Julie Sarson is a project manager and structural engineer at Burns & McDonnell, where she works on major bridge and design-build projects.