Improved Right-of-Way Procedures and Business Practices
Several State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) are considering revising their right-of-way business practices with the goal of simplifying and streamlining processes. Current right-of-way practice and procedure manuals are the products of 40 years of statutes, case law, regulations, management styles and best practices. The procedural manuals have chapters to cover elements such as: a) appraisal; b) appraisal review; c) relocation planning and assistance; d) relocation eligibility and supplemental payments; e) nonresidential relocations; f) acquisition and negotiations; g) legal settlements; h) eminent domain; i) titles and closing; j) property management; k) leasing; l) sale of excess property; m) mapping and geographic information systems (GIS); n) encroachments; o) contracting for services; and p) administrative costs. Procedures and guidelines are often an accumulation of historical practice or those adopted from other agencies. State procedures vary widely because of differences in State laws. Local agencies are required to follow State DOT procedural manuals when they use State or Federal funding. Questions arise as new staff try to understand the reason or underlying basis for requirements. Contractors and consultants face a wide array of requirements and forms among the various States. This research is in support of the AASHTO Highway Subcommittee Right-of-Way and Utility strategic plan to provide leadership and support to member agency right-of-way staff. This research will provide new direction and lead to immediate cost savings by reducing the hours required to accomplish certain functions. This research will result in streamlined business practices that are easier to maintain, cost effective and result in delivery of projects sooner. Research is needed to provide information to State DOTs and local agencies to rationally evaluate current right-of-way procedures and business practices; to determine what function is served by each procedure; to determine the need for each procedure, i.e. statute or practice; to document the benefits and operational logic for continuing a procedure, modifying, or eliminating it, evaluate the cost of maintaining current procedures and to quantify the benefits from them. This includes, but is not limited to, the current cost of agents, training new agents and administrative costs on a parcel or tract basis. Determine what processes are essential to providing a consistent product and comply with statutory requirements, such as the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970 (Uniform Act), as well as the most common elements of State eminent domain laws, identify institutional, political, and economic barriers to the adoption of procedures that will be easier to maintain for the next 20 years, and examine and compare several common types of existing FHWA approved right-of-way manuals used by State DOTs and local agencies and common State regulations. Agencies will be contacted and staff will be interviewed to ascertain what are the origins, purpose and authorities for the existing procedures; what criteria and procedures are needed, as a minimum, to protect owner and tenant rights; what procedures would work if the agency could start anew; how and/or whether procedures might be modified for local agency use, i.e., a stand alone manual for local agencies; what are the issues in administering procedures that need to be addressed to assure consistent application; and what are the institutional, political, and economic barriers to implementation? A major objective of the research will be to develop a rationale or basis for a new or modified approach. This will include an objective analysis of all key elements mentioned above, i.e., appraisal, appraisal review, relocation, etc. This research would culminate by analyzing the typical right-of-way business model for the four major elements of appraisal, acquisition, relocation, and property management, and developing a revised model that is less costly to maintain. It would outline a sample procedural manual with forms that could be used to administer a simplified and cost-effective right-of-way program that is responsive to national statutes and the Uniform Act. The resulting business model would be accompanied by a cost/benefit analysis and recommended roll-out implementation plan that could be readily adopted and applied by State DOTs and local agencies for national consistency. One of the initial goals of the Uniform Act was to create a fair and consistent process for the acquisition of real property by public agencies. This research would help us assure the continued uniformity of the process. This research will be a direct follow-on to the 2008 International Scan for ROW and Utilities called "Integrating & Streamlining Right of Way and Utility Processes with Planning, Environment, and Design." Ideas and strategies derived from the 2008 International Scan will feed directly into revised business practices. State DOTs who undertake pilot projects in 2009 will be able to use lessons learned and provide input to this research effort. The timing is beneficial for all parties in that this research product will bring about full implementation of the 2008 streamlining strategies. This research will provide new direction and lead to immediate cost savings by reducing the hours required to accomplish certain functions. This research will result in streamlined business practices that are easier to maintain, cost effective and result in delivery of projects sooner. The effort devoted to training new right-of-way agents, who may or may not stay with the agency, is becoming cost prohibitive and is time consuming. It is anticipated that there will be many institutional barriers to overcome. Many right-of-way agents have adapted to the current procedures and will be resistant to change. State DOT legal staff also may resist changes, thinking that revised procedures may affect property owner rights. In order to address these barriers, the final research report should contain an outline of a revised procedural manual that would be sufficient to meet Federal regulations and laws, allowing each State to augment this information with specifics to address that particular State's laws.