Senators McCaskill (D-Mo) and Portman (R-Oh)
In recent years, federal and state environmental permitting procedures have grown increasingly complex. This not only results in needless delays, it also hobbles the nation’s infrastructure repair and improvement at a time when these projects are increasingly important.
Having done significant state and federal permitting work through the years (see here and here), we’re especially glad to see that U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Oh.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have introduced a bill to reduce unnecessary delays from permitting red tape. “The Federal Permitting Improvement Act” is targeted at streamlining the permit approval process. Rather than just streamlining the permitting process, the proposed bill would set deadlines for the issuance of permits and would limit the window for legal challenges to 150 days after publication of a project’s final federal authorization in the Federal Register.
This would be a significant change from the current six-year NEPA Default for legal challenges set by the law back in 1970.
There are a number of important issues involved with the Portman-McCaskill proposal that deserve attention:
Infrastructure investment is an obvious catalyst for job creation and economic growth. The quality of our infrastructure is critical to maintaining our Nation’s competitive edge in a global economy and to securing our path to energy independence.
The challenge is in taking steps to improve our infrastructure in ways that also protect our Nation’s environmental, historical, and cultural resources. These remain important drivers of economic opportunity, resiliency, and quality of life.
This bill comes on the heels of a similar effort by the Executive Branch. In May, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum following the President’s 2012 Executive Order designed to cut in half the aggregate timelines for major infrastructure projects.
In recent years, both Federal and State agencies have been constantly streamlining their regulatory processes, bringing improved results. As Chief of Regulatory in the Baltimore District Corps of Engineers for 17 years, we streamlined project decision making on three Federal Aid highway projects in Pennsylvania by working with PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission early in the process. By merging the FHWA NEPA and the Corps Clean Water Act Section 404 permit processes, we cut project approval time by 70 percent or more. This saved 11.5 years of review time and $122.9 million in tax dollars.
This success led the FHWA to expand this kind of review system nationwide in the late 1990s and early 2000, a transition that has saved hundreds of millions of tax dollars annually ever since. For the $3 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge Replacement Project, we resolved all regulatory issues including extensive historical and endangered species issues, and delivered the permit two years to the day from when we made the initial decision commitment. Talk about cutting permitting timelines while right in Washington’s backyard!
Finally, even with all the improvements, there is no doubt that a consultant with an in-depth knowledge of Federal Regulations, Policies, and Procedures can save a client millions of dollars on complex infrastructure projects. At Dawson and Associates we often see where too much time and money is wasted going down the wrong path, which only fuels delays and cost overruns.
By contrast, on complex projects, the best approach involves investing in the upfront process and working with all the agencies from the start to streamline the process. That facilitates better decisions and eliminates the waste and expense of lengthy review processes.
Linda Morrison spent more than 30 years in the US Army Corps of Engineers, including serving as Chief of Operations Division Savannah District and Chief of the Baltimore District Regulatory Program.