America has always been a land of great builders — from Grand Lake in northeast Oklahoma to the Golden Gate Bridge and the inland waterway system, we’ve seen the dramatic economic impact that comes from investing in infrastructure. With the development of new technology of the 21st century, we would expect that the United States is well positioned to take on bold projects that would lead the world.
The private sector is ready and eager to invest in many of these critical projects but has been hesitant to jump — most notably because our flawed and convoluted permitting process means their investment may take years and years to get off the ground.
I know this better than anyone. Before I got involved in public service, I was a builder and developer for many years. I was doing what we want all American businesses to do — create jobs and expand the tax base. But I kept running into the same problem: government. I still remember being told that I needed to obtain approval from over two dozen agencies to build a single dock. Imagine if I were trying to build a road or a dam.
President Trump’s infrastructure proposal recognizes this problem and prioritizes responsible permitting reform, an important tool in unlocking the economic potential of a major infrastructure package. He’s serious about restoring America’s ability to build critical infrastructure on budget and on time.
Our permitting system hasn’t always been like this. When the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed in 1970, it was the first time environmental impact statements were required for all infrastructure projects. At the time, environmental reviews were expected to take no more than a year. Today, because of the sprawling expanse of government bureaucracy and inefficiencies, it can be closer to 10 years because there are just too many decision-makers, resulting in sequential (not concurrent) review processes, ballooning agency costs and a lack of communication between agencies on identical reviews.
These delays come at a real cost. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation reports that for each year of project delays, the cost increases by an additional 3 percent, meaning a five-year delay due to permitting results in a 15 percent price tag increase.
We need to cut red tape to ensure that needed projects, especially in underserved communities, can get off the ground. We’ve taken positive steps forward to streamline permitting processes in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act by encouraging greater interagency cooperation and quicker review timelines, but more needs to be done. We can, and should, build on the successful reforms of the past by expanding those provisions to include all modes of infrastructure.
Reducing bureaucracy in the permitting process doesn’t have to put any environmental protections at risk. Just look at Canada and Germany. While they are known for being “green” countries, they can generally provide necessary improvements for major infrastructure projects within two years, including environmental reviews, because they have a consolidated decision-making process.
We’re already having conversations to take the president’s infrastructure proposal and turn it into law. Permitting reform is just one critical part of it, but a vital one to ensuring that taxpayer funds are spent wisely and efficiently on building projects so we can accomplish the bold plan we’ve set out to do.
• Sen. James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, is Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
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