The right way forward on Federal infrastructure

One of President Trump’s first official acts was to sign E.O. 13766, “Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High-Priority Infrastructure Projects.”


One of President Trump’s first official acts was to sign Executive Order 13766, “Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High-Priority Infrastructure Projects.”

Will this Executive Order actually do something to deliver on the president’s promise of increased infrastructure investment? Or is it primarily window dressing to show action without achieving much?

Having worked to implement a similar executive order during the George W. Bush administration, my opinion is that this new executive order can have limited but meaningful effectiveness if executed well.

The Executive Order tasks the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) with selecting high priority projects and brokering expedited environmental reviews and approvals among the participating federal agencies. CEQ has the prestige of the Executive Office of the President, but its small staff means that it can only handle a small number of projects.

The projects that CEQ picks for this special attention should have the full commitment of the project’s supporters and be environmentally clean. This means that the sponsors know the Federal rules and are willing to meet all appropriate requirements so that Federal agencies can feel reasonably comfortable that they will withstand challenges in court.

This takes some time, but more importantly, it takes project management that separates important issues from red herrings and proceeds with an eye on the clock. For example, both project sponsors and the Federal agencies reviewing and using their work need to document that such issues as the indirect effects of a project have been responsibly addressed while resisting the temptation to study every conceivable outcome.

Project sponsors need to have state and local support and their own funding lined up. It is of little consequence for Federal approvals to be given if state or local issues prevent the project from moving forward. And what good are governmental approvals at all levels if a project is stalled for lack of funding?

This point is so obvious that it should be self-evident. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s not. Four years ago, I saw a major turnpike project in a Southern state was all set to receive its necessary Federal permits and approvals. But sponsors had neglected to confirm their own share of the project funding so they didn’t push for those Federal approvals.

Last year, when the sponsors lined up the project funding, the project was no longer set for Federal approval. It needed to be restudied, with that process delaying the project by several months if not longer. All of this could have been avoided through a more careful synchronization of project activities.

In designating high priority projects, CEQ should be modest in its goals. Think baseball: 80 percent singles, 20 percent doubles, triples and home runs. The selected projects don’t need to be the next Panama Canal; together they should add up to something that resembles a cross-section of what is needed to combat our crumbling infrastructure and to demonstrate our aspirations for the systems of the future.

The CEQ probably can’t handle much more than a dozen projects, but on those projects it should lean on the participating Federal agencies with the full weight of the White House. Delays due to agency staffing limitations and inappropriate requests for additional studies should not be tolerated.

By picking projects that are neither the most complex nor the most controversial, CEQ can facilitate Federal agency approval much faster than normal.

All of this won’t modify ill-conceived laws, rules, or policies and it won’t change agency cultures, but it will show what is possible on a few projects. It can also set the stage for more systemic changes that remove obstacles to environmentally sound infrastructure improvements across the country. That would be a good start.

Fred Skaer Senior Advisor

A member of the Dawson team since 2010, Fred was Director of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Project Development and Environmental Review. He also served as staff director of the Federal Interagency Task Force on Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Review, which advised the Secretary of Transportation on infrastructure projects under Executive Order 13274.

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