Minnesota Department of Transportation

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Project development

Environmental process | Environmental review

Visual Quality


A transportation project’s visual quality affects the human experience of those who directly travel the project, as well as those who experience it as a part of their natural and cultural environments. Addressing visual quality, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other laws include preserving and enhancing the aesthetically and culturally pleasing aspects of the transportation system and its surroundings. Impacts to visual quality—beneficial as well as adverse—should be adequately assessed and considered when a highway project is developed.

When to use this subject

Consider visual quality effect on all transportation projects as part of the resulting human experience. Scalability of the assessment can help assure efficient project delivery, which FHWA guidance provides, while thoughtfully preserving and enhancing visually pleasing transportation experiences regardless of the project size.

If the project requires an Environmental Assessment (EA), EA Worksheet (EAW), or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the Office of Environmental Stewardship (OES) strongly recommends that you conduct a Visual Impact Assessment (VIA).  A VIA is recommended for projects that involve:

  • Grading beyond the shoulder of the roadway
  • Structures (bridges, walls and buildings)
  • Lighting, railings, and fencing
  • Pedestrian and/or bicycle trails and amenities
  • Vegetation (protection, addition, modification, removal)
  • Scenic byways
  • Rest areas, overlooks, and state or community entrances
  • Historic or archeological sites
  • Iconic landscapes
  • Resources protected by federal, Tribal or state law

How this subject fits into the overall project development process

The U.S. Department of Transportation September, 2013 Guidelines for the Visual Impact Assessment of Highway Projects recommends using a scoping questionnaire consisting of 10 questions whose answers will help determine if a VIA is needed, and four different levels of assessment based on the scope, complexity, and controversy associated with a particular project. If the project and its impacts are visually inconsequential, the authors should prepare a memo to the file (VIA Memorandum).

Contact the Environmental Planning and Design Unit early in the scoping process to find out if a VIA is necessary and the level of effort, cost, and schedule impacts the VIA may cause.

For specific process information, see the process page and/or contact the individual on the contacts page.

Organizations involved