California Department of Transportation

Module 1: Policy and Process
Lesson 5: VIA Overview

Slide 68

Visual Impact Assessment Overview

Lesson five provides an overview of the FHWA Visual Impact Assessment process as it has been adopted by Caltrans.

Slide 69

Visual Impact Assessment Overview

This lesson is divided into four main topics as listed on the slide.


Slide 70

ViA Process

The FHWA VIA Process Concept Diagram is summarized graphically as a flow diagram and is available in the narrative text file as a hypertext link.  Notice that there are two main elements that need to be analyzed and understood in order to assess visual impacts: 1) Visual Resources (blue boxes) and 2) Viewers (yellow boxes).  The interaction between these two elements—or more profoundly the relationship between these two elements—is what generates visual impacts.  Again it is the relationship between visual resources and viewers that generates the visual impacts—visual impacts cannot be isolated in the person doing the viewing; nor in the resource being viewed—visual impacts are always about the relationship between viewers and their environment.

The blue boxes represent visual resources (or to use physiological and psychological terms: the stimulus).  The yellow boxes represent viewers (or to use another physiological and psychological term: the response).


Slide 71

idealized Workflow

The VIA process is a method for determining visual impacts that would be caused by the construction of a proposed transportation project.  The previous slide with the blue, yellow, and green boxes, indicated the flow of the tasks involved in developing a VIA.  A VIA, however, is only the beginning of the environmental review of visual issues. The next three slides show how the work flows from the VIA to the Environmental Document and how the review process assures what the Landscape Architect has stated in the VIA is accurately portrayed in the project’s draft and final environmental documents.


Slide 72

Flow Chart

This slide shows how the work flows from the VIA produced by the landscape architect to the environmental document produced by the environmental generalist.

The landscape architect is responsible for authoring a draft VIA that is then reviewed and commented on by the environmental generalist.  The landscape architect revises the draft to produce a final VIA document.  The supervisor of the landscape architect performs a QA/QC review of the draft and final VIAs before they are submitted to the environmental generalist.

The environmental generalist uses the final VIA to develop a VIA Summary for inclusion in the project’s environmental document.  Following a QA/QC review by the supervisor of the environmental generalist, the landscape architect reviews and comments on the summary of the VIA.  The environmental generalist revises the VIA Summary in accordance with the comments from the landscape architect.   This final version of the environmental document has a QA/QC review by the environmental generalist and the landscape architect.

This chart, Flow Chart of Professional Responsibilities, is available.


Slide 73

Document Reviews

To ensure the quality of the reports, a thorough QA/QC process needs to be utilized.  Independent reviewers need to check the draft and final VIA before they are submitted to the environmental generalist.   The work of the environmental generalist needs to be reviewed by the supervisor of the environmental generalist and the landscape architect prior to submittal to regulatory authorities or distribution to the community.


Slide 74

Quality Control Certification

The quality control review of the environmental document by the landscape architect has been formalized with a certification process that requires that the landscape architect officially sign an “internal certifications” document attesting to:

    • The accuracy of information in the environmental document;
    •  The consistency between the technical study and the information summarized in the environmental document;
    •  That all avoidance, minimization and/or mitigation measures are appropriately characterized and are feasible to implement;
    • That all anticipated permit and/or approval actions have been accurately identified within the environmental document. Without the signature of the Landscape Architect who authored the VIA, the environmental document cannot be cleared.    

Slide 75

Quality Control Certification (Continued)

Completing this Internal Certifications Form is essential before the project can move to the next phase of the project development process.  Furthermore, this document is necessary for the NEPA Delegation audit that will be done later by the FHWA. This certification ensures that the findings of the VIA will be accurately reported in the environmental document.  The landscape architect reviews the summary in the environmental document, signing the certification only if the VIA and summary are consistent.  If not, then the landscape architect and the environmental generalist still need work together to reach an agreement on the text that should be used in the summary.

Several documents are available that relate to the quality control of environmental documents under NEPA Delegation Pilot Program including a July 2, 2007 Memorandum from Jay Norvell, Chief, Division of Environmental Analysis, Caltrans, called  Norvell Quality Control Under NEPA Delegation Memo With AttachmentTwo additional attachments, originally part of the same memo, are also available as separate files, the previously mentioned, Internal Certifications Form and a similar, External Certifications Form.


Slide 76

Objective Process

Earlier in this presentation, we have attempted to illustrate why a VIA is not subjective but rather is based on a set of tested methods—objective methods that have been in use for over 30 years and which courts have determined to be a valid approach to determining visual impacts.

Rigorous scientific studies have concluded that people have similar concerns and preferences about the visual environment.  Courts have concluded that following the same understandable procedure is legally defensible.  The use of the FHWA VIA procedures yields consistent results, identifying visual impacts and ranking alternatives accurately and consistently.   This process has proven to be a useful tool for decision makers in its thirty years of use.


Slide 77


Validation of the FHWA VIA process has a thirty year history of regulatory approvals and scrutiny by the public. 

Around the country, appeals to a higher political authority—either executive or  legislative branches of government—have nonetheless occurred but have only been successful if an approved VIA process was not rigorously followed.   It is the intent of Caltrans to rigorously follow the FHWA process.

VIA findings have also been challenged in court but even those courts that have found findings in error have reiterated that the process is sound only its execution in certain cases has been flawed.  Again, by strictly following the FHWA VIA process, Caltrans avoids having its findings successfully challenged.

Finally, the review of the FHWA VIA process and indeed reviews of other VIA processes by academics will continue to refine and improve the scientific approach of the VIA process.  Caltrans is following and supporting such research through the National Cooperative Highway Research Program.


Module 1, Lesson 6 - Team Project Introduction