No one can argue that our crumbling infrastructure — public or private — is up to the standards we should be setting for our economy and our great nation. The problems are enormous. Our transportation infrastructure network is in dire need of repair. With one in four bridges structurally deficient or obsolete, bridges are literally collapsing across the country because of overuse. And one out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition, costing the average American more than $9 a day idling in traffic.
There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States — and in some places, like my home state of Alaska, there are entire communities that don’t even have access to tap water and a flushing toilet. Much of our energy grid is at full capacity or being overworked, and many of our schools are crumbling. The list seems endless.
We can do much better for our citizens, and I believe that the Trump administration’s focus on infrastructure presents our nation with significant bipartisan opportunities. However, a key to the success of any infrastructure package must involve a desperately needed reform of our country’s broken public-works and environmental approval process.
A thorough permitting process is important and necessary for the health and safety of our citizens and our nation. But for too long, the regulatory and permitting process has been abused by radical groups and even by federal agencies to obstruct and delay critically needed projects.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970, mandates that Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) be conducted on projects that have significant impact on the environment. EISs were meant to increase public input and transparency for infrastructure developments. Thirty years ago, an EIS was expected to take no more than 12 months to complete, and usually only consisted of a few hundred pages. That process now takes four to six years, can cost millions of dollars and often involves thousands of pages — resulting in an opaque process accessible only to lawyers and bureaucrats.
Let me provide some real-world examples: In my state, the U.S. Department of Transportation finally broke a logjam for a 15-mile highway project that has been in the works for over 36 years — what we believe to be the longest-running EIS in the works for the federal government in the history of the country. After 14 years, the expansion of Gross Reservoir in Colorado is still waiting on final federal approvals. It took four years to construct a new runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but it took 15 years to get the pre-build permits. Despite reports that ultimately showed little environmental impact, the Keystone XL Pipeline project languished in permitting purgatory for almost the entire two terms of the previous administration before President Barack Obama finally killed it in 2015. It took an executive order by President Trump to approve the construction of the pipeline.
Every day we spend fighting the overwhelming government bureaucracy needed to move forward on commonsense projects to fix our roads, bridges and water systems, is another day in which opportunities for economic growth are missed and our nation’s crumbling infrastructure gets worse.
President Trump has made permitting reform a major principle in his infrastructure package. A bill I introduced, the Rebuild America Now Act, provides a detailed and sound blueprint for fixing the problem.
My legislation provides realistic deadlines for permitting reviews and expands exclusion of those reviews for emergency and vital infrastructure projects. Anti-development groups are currently preparing litigation to stop American infrastructure and energy projects. My bill limits such frivolous litigation and has a specific section on streamlining the application process for much-needed energy projects that power the country. And because the Rebuild America Now Act would put workers back to work, it has earned the support of a broad coalition of unions and building trades — including the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA).
Five cabinet members — including secretaries of the Departments of Transportation, Commerce, Labor, Agriculture and Energy — all recently testified before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing about the need for permitting reform to accompany an infrastructure package. They highlighted specifically how such reforms can attract necessary private investments and how such investments can help prevent a repeat of President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus — which wrecked the country’s balance sheets while doing little to spur economic growth.
An infrastructure bill that fails to reform dysfunctional permitting runs a similar risk. These reforms will prevent billions of dollars from getting wasted in red tape and litigation — making it easier to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure.
America used to be the envy of the world in building great projects responsibly, efficiently and on time. The Pentagon was built in 16 months. The 1,500-mile Alaska-Canadian Highway, which passes through some of the world’s most rugged terrain, took about eight months. If real federal permitting reform is part of a broad-based infrastructure initiative, we can be the envy of the world again.
• Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee; Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation; Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works; and Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
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