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To build an extension of a rail line or to construct and operate a new rail line, a rail carrier must first apply to the STB for authority. Construction proposals are subject to review under the Interstate Commerce Act (49 USC 10901). Many also require an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (42 USC 4321 et seq.)

Most carriers file, as an initial pleading, a Petition for Exemption under 49 U.S.C. 10502 from the formal application procedures of 49 U.S.C. 10901. The STB reviews the Petition to make a determination of whether, from a transportation perspective, detailed scrutiny of the proposed increased service is necessary. If the STB finds that such scrutiny is not necessary, it will typically issue a conditional grant of authority, subject to the STB's further consideration of the anticipated environmental impacts of the proposal.

To comply with NEPA, the STB's Office of Environmental Analysis (OEA) usually prepares either an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or an Environmental Assessment (EA). OEA is usually assisted in this process by an independent third-party contractor. Please see the STB's Policy Statement on Use of Third Party Contractors, Ex Parte No. 585, served on March 19, 2001. The STB's environmental regulations are located at 49 CFR 1105. The STB must take a "hard look" at the potential environmental impacts of a proposed action before it makes a final decision to approve or deny the proposal. It is during the NEPA process that citizens can have the greatest impact on a decision. To help citizens understand the environmental process more fully, OEA has prepared an Information Bulletin entitled Summary of the Environmental Review Process in Railroad Construction Cases Before the Surface Transportation Board.

When the environmental review process is complete, the STB will issue a further decision addressing the environmental aspects of the proposed action and deciding whether to allow the exemption to become effective. No construction may begin until the STB decides to allow the exemption to become effective. The STB is free to accept, reject or modify OEA's recommendations (including proposed environmental mitigation), but in most cases the decision reflects the mitigation measures proposed by OEA.

For additional information on this topic please contact the Office of Public Assistance, Governmental Affairs, and Compliance (OPAGAC).