President Trump this week reiterated his commitment to “rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.” He called upon Congress to enact a law that “generates at least $1.5 trillion” and also to “streamline the permitting and approval process — getting it down to no more than two years, and perhaps even one.”
This would be an enormous boon to society, improving not only America’s competitiveness, but also creating a greener environmental footprint — while adding more than a million new jobs.
But environmental groups are lining up in opposition even before they’ve seen the details. Streamlining red tape, they argue, requires gutting environmental regulations. Are they really in favor of bloated processes that can take a decade or longer and produce impenetrable 5,000-page environmental review statements?
The facts are not on their side. A 2015 report by my organization, Common Good, found the following:
Other greener countries such as Germany approve large projects in less than two years, including environmental review.
A typical six-year delay in large projects more than doubles the effective cost of the projects.
Lengthy environmental reviews often harm the environment by prolonging polluting bottlenecks.
Modernizing America’s infrastructure is a necessity, not an ideology. Rickety transmission lines lose 6 percent of their electricity, the equivalent of 200 coal-burning power plants. About 2,000 “high-hazard” dams are in deficient condition. Century-old water-mains leak over 2 trillion gallons of fresh water a year. Over 3 billion gallons of gasoline are consumed by vehicles idling in traffic jams. Half of fatal car accidents are caused in part by poor road conditions.
Fixing this doesn’t require changing, much less gutting, environmental protections. Common Good has presented Congress with a three-page legislative proposal that creates clear lines of authority to make decisions on a timely basis: An environmental official would be authorized to focus the review on material issues, not thousands of pages of trivial detail; the White House could resolve disagreements among bickering agencies; federal law would preempt delays by state and local governments on interstate projects; and lawsuits would be expedited and limited to material environmental harms, not foot faults.
No one intended environmental review or permitting to take a decade. Current regulations say that analyses in complex projects should not exceed 300 pages. But the review for raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge, a project with virtually no environmental impact (it used the existing bridge foundations), was 20,000 pages including exhibits. This is bureaucratic insanity.
What the current process does is give environmental groups a veto. Just by threatening to sue, they can drag processes on for years. But where in the Constitution does it empower naysayers to call the shots? Environmental review should not be used to prevent elected officials from making decisions.
Funding is also obviously needed. The political deal is obvious: Democrats should agree to streamline permitting as long as Republicans provide adequate funding. Most roads and other such projects lack a revenue stream and require public funds. It’s a good investment, returning about $1.50 for every dollar spent, according to Moody’s. It’ll be an even better investment when effective costs are cut in half by streamlining permitting.
Trump’s initiative is a moral as well as a practical imperative. We are living off the infrastructure built by our grandparents and their grandparents. What shape will it be in when we bequeath it to our grandchildren?
New York has choke points that can’t tolerate any further delay. The two rail tunnels coming into Penn Station from New Jersey are over 100 years old, and were badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy. When they shut down for repairs the result is “carmageddon” — 25-mile gridlock.
The approach bridge to those tunnels is made of iron and wood, and occasionally catches fire or gets stuck when pivoting open for barge traffic — causing trains to wait for hours. The “Gateway project” for two new tunnels is essential to avoiding economic and environmental chaos, and almost ready for construction. It needs permits and money. Congress has to provide it.
On fixing America’s transportation woes, it’s time to link arms, not use any pretext to oppose this plan.
Philip K. Howard is chairman of the nonpartisan Common Good (commongood.org) reform organization and a New York-based civic leader, lawyer, author (including the best-selling The Death of Common Sense), and photographer. He's also an old friend, classmate and sometime colleague of New England Diary editor Robert Whitcomb. This piece first ran in The New York Post.