After decades of woeful underinvestment and short-sighted policy decisions, our country is finally having a long-overdue conversation about the state of our infrastructure. By and large, Democrats and Republicans in Congress, along with a majority of Americans, agree: The highways, bridges, ports, railways and waterways that so many of us use every day are in dire need of repair. There is also broad support for investing in our country’s transportation network in order to more effectively and efficiently move people and goods from one place to another.
Unfortunately, instead of calling for much-needed investments in our country’s infrastructure, the Trump administration’s proposal released last month focuses more on undermining environmental protections in the name of speeding up infrastructure projects.
Since my days as governor of Delaware and chairman of the National Governors Association, I’ve been committed to making sure that infrastructure projects are completed in a timely manner. That’s why I have worked with my colleagues in the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, to improve permitting processes and coordination among agencies in order to more quickly jump-start infrastructure projects across the country.
However, simply gutting or weakening the bedrock environmental laws that protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we share will not achieve faster results. Instead, it threatens our communities, wastes taxpayer dollars and deprives the residents who would be most affected by these projects from making their voices heard.
There are many ways to speed projects without causing potentially devastating environmental harm. If President Trump and his administration are serious about accelerating project delivery, then I have a few steps that they can take right now to do so without rolling back important environmental protections.
First, President Trump should act expeditiously to appoint an executive director to the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council. In 2015, Congress created this council in that year’s highway bill, known as the FAST Act, for the explicit purpose of better coordinating and expediting permits. However, over a year into this administration, an executive director has yet to be appointed. If the Trump administration really wants to accelerate the permitting process, then it should prioritize finding a qualified individual to lead this council whose primary mission, according to the General Services Administration, is to accelerate the permitting process.
Next, this administration should focus on implementing the numerous highway project streamlining measures put in place over the last six years. I understand there are times when public agencies are not coordinating as effectively as possible, and projects are delayed without good reason. That is precisely why I supported the 22 streamlining provisions that passed in the 2012 highway bill (MAP-21) and the 18 additional streamlining provisions included in the 2015 FAST Act in order to improve coordination between agencies and avoid duplication. However, to date, many of these provisions have yet to be fully implemented. Layering additional streamlining measures on top of one another before they can be implemented and before we can assess their effectiveness is not a smart approach and may actually delay projects.
In March 2017, the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General released a report highlighting the real risks of adopting new streamlining measures before the old ones are implemented. The report noted that the streamlining measures Congress passed in the 2015 FAST Act may have actually delayed the benefits from the 2012 MAP-21 streamlining provisions. In other words, we are already seeing counterproductive effects of adopting additional streamlining measures. In order to avoid similar problems going forward, the Trump administration should allow existing streamlining measures to take effect.
Finally, President Trump should provide permitting agencies with the staff and resources necessary to conduct thorough and timely reviews for infrastructure projects. Agencies often cite resource constraints as the primary reason they cannot accelerate reviews. It’s pretty simple: If we want this work to be prioritized, then we should be ensuring that these agencies have the money and staff needed to complete the work.
Unfortunately, the president’s budget proposes massive cuts to these agencies that would make it more difficult to deliver projects more quickly. The president’s latest budget proposed a 18 percent cut to discretionary programs at the Department of Transportation, a more than 20 percent cut to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and a 24 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency, compared with levels enacted in 2017. The president’s budget also slashes funding for programs designed specifically to make the permitting process better, like the Department of Transportation’s Infrastructure Permitting Improvement Center.
If the administration is truly interested in accelerating infrastructure projects and conducting environmental reviews more efficiently, then it should prioritize providing adequate funding and leadership for the agencies responsible for those reviews and not impede the progress we have made thus far. I think we can all agree that smarter processes in government that achieve better outcomes is a good thing. By taking these three steps, the Trump administration can help ensure projects are reviewed more efficiently without compromising our nation’s foundational environmental protections.
• Sen. Tom Carper, Delaware Democrat, serves as the Ranking Member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
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