When a road project takes just three years to build, but 25 years to begin construction because of permitting and legal delays, the regulatory system is not working for the taxpayer. That was the case with the Basnight Bridge in North Carolina, a 2.8-mile replacement to the aging Bonner Bridge connecting the Hatteras and Bodie islands in the Outer Banks. Despite widespread support from the community, the project was relentlessly delayed by lawsuits.
While the bridge was eventually approved, this is just one of a growing number of infrastructure projects that have fallen victim to the delays resulting from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Thankfully, though, through the diligent work of the Trump administration, commonsense improvements to NEPA will be finalized this year. These improvements will still protect our environment while creating much-needed jobs during the pandemic recovery.
To be sure, all major construction projects — including ones related to infrastructure — deserve careful scrutiny when it comes to their potential environmental impacts. On the other hand, the duplicative, costly, and time-consuming way in which NEPA is being implemented to create unnecessarily long review periods is in no one’s best interest. That current NEPA process thwarts the completion of beneficial projects, delays economic growth and job creation, and throws up roadblocks to a national infrastructure that in 2017 earned a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. As a global economic leader, that just isn’t acceptable.
Protecting the environment is important, but it’s hard to imagine a truly concerning environmental feature that could not be identified in two years but needs seven years to debate. That’s the thinking behind the Trump administration’s move to set time limits and page limits for the NEPA permitting process.
Consider a handful of projects delayed or deferred because of the outdated and cumbersome NEPA process. In Michigan, for example, improvements to the U.S. 31 corridor could only be made after nearly 20 years of debate, stalled by processes required by NEPA. In Colorado, an expansion to I-70 took more than thirteen years because of the procedural rule, preventing the Denver community from relieving its terrible traffic congestion. In the New York City area, NEPA and its more than 20,000 pages of environmental reviews were the cause of the Bayonne Bridge Raising project taking more than a decade to complete.
With the COVID-19 crisis making it clear just how critical our roads and bridges are to getting supplies to Americans, there has never been a more opportune time to modernize the 50-year old NEPA law and restore common sense to environmental regulations that affect infrastructure. By passing reforms, we can prioritize our highway infrastructure, ensuring that Americans and their first responders have access to the products and services they need and that we emerge from the crisis with a clear path to fixing crumbling American infrastructure.
Plus, modernizing NEPA actually helps the environment. More efficient roadways lead to reduced emissions and today’s new highway projects use the latest technologies and modern solutions that are more respectful of the environment than ever before. It makes sense that getting projects done faster will help reduce congested bottlenecks and reduce wasted fuel and time sitting in traffic.
In addition to these traffic-related gains, updating NEPA will also help speed renewable energy projects. Consider, for example, that it was an outdated NEPA that delayed the Cape Wind Energy Project off Nantucket Sound for 16 years, unnecessarily stalling a project that would have reduced carbon emissions by 1.6 million metric tons per year. If we don’t permit new projects to proceed faster, we are stuck with older technologies and structures that are often more dangerous and more polluting.
By simply setting time limits and page limits for the NEPA permitting process, the Trump administration’s updates to NEPA make sense for the environment and will allow Americans to have access to safer roads sooner. This will be increasingly important when stay-at-home orders are lifted, and drivers eagerly return en masse to our nation’s roadways. With a NEPA built for the 21st Century, we can start to chip away at the $786.4 billion backlog of highway and bridge investments identified by the U.S. Department of Transportation Conditions and Performance Report.
The Trump administration should be commended for taking the lead in implementing necessary and long-overdue updates to NEPA, as those changes are the key to unlocking new infrastructure investment while still enacting solid environmental stewardship. We can’t allow an outdated review process to stand in the way of the public interest any longer. Every highway user deserves safer and less congested roadways sooner rather than later.
Laura Perrotta is the president and CEO of American Highway Users Alliance