Time is money. Escalating costs of infrastructure projects prove this point — especially when it takes an average of seven years (or more) to complete environmental reviews for major projects.
Only in government do we spend upwards of a decade doing what should be done in two years.
The process is mired in a tremendous amount of red tape, often with a mix of state and federal agencies holding roles ranging from applicant to lead agency or decision-maker for a single project. If we’re ever to cut the redundancies and build off the progress made in the 2015 FAST Act, we must streamline the myriad of laws, regulations and agencies involved in the review and permitting of infrastructure.
The first and most obvious way to shrink the environmental review timeline would be to adopt a “one agency, one decision” structure for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) decisions. Simply put, when numerous agencies are involved in the same project, one is appointed the lead and tasked with producing one analysis or decision on the impacts of a project. This agency can assign deadlines and hold the others accountable to process reviews in a timely fashion. With a single, comprehensive review being used for all additional permitting decisions with concrete approval deadlines we can deliver projects faster and cut project costs.
I have seen firsthand how it’s possible at the state level to streamline permitting amid stringent environmental laws by addressing NEPA during the initial review process. We have successfully passed federal laws to allow states like California, whose requirements are more comprehensive than NEPA, to complete NEPA and the state review at the same time and for state laws to preempt NEPA requirements if they meet a certain standard (a pilot program otherwise known as “NEPA Reciprocity”). This is commonsense policy that we must expand.
While success at the state level doesn’t necessarily convey to federal programs, a good start would be to reduce the judicial review time frame for NEPA Reciprocity to 150 days like the rest of federal highway projects. Right now, anyone can file an arbitrary lawsuit against a project for up to two years, even if the litigant is not impacted in any way. Keep in mind, this is after the decade-long review and permitting process. The mere existence of such a lawsuit provides so much risk that project sponsors must stop construction immediately.
We have also seen the Clean Water Act used as a guise for predatory stall tactics. Section 401 of the Clean Water Act — which states that water quality determinations be provided by states — has been weaponized to stop compliant projects. States have denied Section 401 certifications for reasons grossly outside of the scope of water quality, such as noise impacts in Washington State. Other states like New York simply aren’t approving or denying certifications to prevent a permit from being issued — they are instead claiming applications are incomplete, thereby stopping projects in their tracks.
We have an opportunity to improve the permitting process by putting in place barriers to such illegitimate stall tactics. By requiring states to make a “completeness determination” within three months of the initial Section 401 application, we can enforce the existing 12-month deadline for states to make a decision and remove Section 401 as an environmental tool for stymieing infrastructure projects.
Reducing reviews and inefficiencies in the process is a bipartisan issue that would save American businesses and taxpayers trillions of dollars and move major infrastructure projects to keep pace with our country’s ever-growing infrastructure needs. As we produce an infrastructure investment package over the coming months, we need to include cost-saving measures so taxpayer dollars go as far as possible. Expediting time frames, consolidating decision-making and providing agency accountability to deliver projects faster is a simple way to cut costs. If we’re serious about infrastructure investment, commonsense reforms should accompany dollars to provide the best deal for the taxpayer.
• Rep. Jeff Denham, California Republican, is Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.
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