FRA Legislation & Regulations

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Project Sponsors need to comply with not only the FRA National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations, but also a number of additional laws, executive orders, and requirements that all fit under the umbrella of the NEPA process. This section lists regulations likely to be covered under the NEPA process. FRA and Project Sponsors partner with natural, cultural, and historic resource agencies to meet the requirements of additional considerations and must establish realistic timeframes for the environmental review of rail projects. All project partners need to work cooperatively to adhere to set timeframes while protecting and enhancing the environment. The efficient and effective coordination of multiple environmental reviews, analyses, and permitting actions is essential to meet the mandates for:

NEPA Implementation

To assist Federal agencies in effectively implementing the environmental policy and "action forcing" provisions of NEPA, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued Regulations for Implementing the Procedural Provisions of NEPA (40 CFR Parts 1500–1508). In 1980, CEQ issued the guidance document Forty Questions and Answers on the CEQ Regulations. Since that time, CEQ has published additional NEPA process guidance and information covering a variety of issues.

To address the NEPA responsibilities established by CEQ, FRA in partnership with FHWA and FTA issued updates to the regulation Environmental Impact and Related Procedures 23 CFR Parts 771 and 774 in October 2018, effective on November 28, 2018.

Relevant Federal Transportation Authorizations

FAST Act: The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) (P.L. 114-94), signed into law on December 4, 2015, was the first Federal-aid law in over a decade to provide long-term funding certainty for surface transportation infrastructure planning and investment. The FAST Act also marked the first time intercity passenger rail programs had been included in a comprehensive, multi-modal surface transportation authorization bill, authorizing more than $10 billion for intercity passenger and freight rail grants.

The FAST Act includes several provisions to further expedite permitting processes while still protecting environmental and historic treasures and codifying the online system to track projects and interagency coordination processes. Some of these requirements are directed to FRA’s program delivery efforts.

MAP-21: The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) (P.L. 112-141), signed into law on July 6, 2012, promotes accelerating project delivery and encourages innovation through the increased use of Categorical Exclusions (CEs), programmatic approaches, and linking planning and NEPA.

Human & Natural Environment

Rail transportation project development must reflect the desires of communities, and take into account the impacts on both the natural and human environments. Therefore, in addition to NEPA and Federal transportation authorizations referenced above, proposed rail transportation projects are subject to many other laws, regulations, and Executive Orders (E.O.).

These laws cover social, economic, and environmental concerns ranging from community cohesion to threatened and endangered species. The following sections cover examples of these laws.

Human Environment

These laws focus primarily on the built environment and its impacts on individuals, historical and cultural resources, hazardous materials, and environmental justice.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in all areas of public life including jobs, schools, transportation, and areas open to the public. The purpose of the law is to ensure people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and requires equal access to employment and public places.

E.O. 12898 on Environmental Justice directs Federal agencies to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations. The E.O. is intended to promote nondiscrimination in Federal programs that affect human health and the environment.

National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) preserves historical and archaeological sites in the U.S. Section 106 of the NHPA requires agencies using Federal funds to identify historic properties and consider the effects of their projects on those historic properties. Under Section 4(f) found at 23 CFR Part 774, agencies of the U.S. DOT must avoid use of historic sites.

Final Section 106 Program Comment for Rail Rights-of-Way (published in the Federal Register on August 24, 2018): excludes from the Section 106 consultation process routine activities affecting active transportation rights-of-ways.

Noise & Vibration  FRA's Office of Safety is responsible for enforcing the Railroad Noise Emissions Compliance Regulation that sets maximum sound levels from railroad equipment and for regulating locomotive horns. FRA published the Train Horn Rule (49 CFR Part 222), providing the community an opportunity to create a quiet zone. Localities desiring to establish a quiet zone are first required to mitigate the increased risk caused by the absence of a horn. Learn how to create a Quiet Zone here.

Natural Environment

These laws primarily focus on the protection of natural resources such as air, water, wetlands, fisheries, and endangered species, including landmark laws such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

The Clean Air Act regulates stationary and mobile sources of air pollution to protect human health and the environment. 

FRA follows the General Conformity rule under the Clean Air Act (section 176(c)(4)) for rail infrastructure projects. The General Conformity rule ensures that actions taken by FRA do not interfere with a State’s plans to attain and maintain national standards for air quality (NAAQS), and plays an important role in helping those States and tribes improve air quality in their areas that do not meet the NAAQS.

In June 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a three-part program that dramatically reduces emissions from diesel locomotives of all types — line-haul, switch, and passenger rail. EPA standards also apply for existing locomotives when they are remanufactured. Requirements are also in place to reduce idling for new and remanufactured locomotives.

The Clean Water Act regulates discharging pollutants into the waters of the United States to protect human health and the environment. Under the Clean Water Act, State environmental agencies and the EPA employ a variety of regulatory and non-regulatory tools to reduce direct and indirect pollutant discharges into waterways.

The Endangered Species Act protects and recovers imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.

FRA includes fostering Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) innovation throughout the industry, helping development of new hazardous materials regulations and design standards to improve the safety and integrity of tank cars and other packages carrying hazardous materials.

Land and Water Conservation Fund Act provides fund matching to Federal, State, and local governments for the acquisition of land and water, and easements on land and water. It is intended to protect national natural treasures in the forms of parks and protected forest and wildlife areas.

Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits harassing, feeding, hunting, capturing, collecting, or killing any marine mammal or part of a marine mammal.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) prevents the taking of birds listed as "migratory birds," including all common songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, hawks, owls, eagles, ravens, crows, native doves and pigeons, swifts, martins, and swallows. Federal-aid highway projects that are likely to result in "take" of birds protected under the MBTA require the issuance of take permits.

Wild and Scenic Rivers Act preserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.