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Modernizing the Infrastructure Permitting Process

Modernizing the Infrastructure Permitting Process

At the World Economic Forum this week, I’ve had the opportunity to share some of the best practices being developed in the U.S. to mitigate the risks involved in government permitting delays. These delays are becoming too commonplace, as permitting regulations at all levels have grown more complex, duplicative and burdensome.

The time taken to complete an environmental impact statement is now almost 5 years on average, and for highways has averaged over 7 years. This has significantly hindered the process for building and rehabilitating roads, bridges, airports, railways, and waterways.

In the 1930s, it took 5 years to complete the Hoover Dam, one of the most significant infrastructure projects in U.S. history. By contrast, it recently took nearly 30 years to get approval to replace the Bonner Bridge – now the Marc Basnight Bridge—in the state of North Carolina.  It is the only roadway access that surrounding communities have for schools, medical care, and storm evacuation.  The environmental review process for this bridge alone took over 19 years to complete. Then, several years were lost during a lawsuit, which included a record of over 92,000 pages. 

This is an unacceptably long time to make the public wait for critical infrastructure.

To address these delays, this Administration has proposed a rule to modernize and accelerate environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This will enable infrastructure to be built in a timely, efficient, and affordable manner, while also safeguarding the environment. The proposed rule would:

  • Establish time limits for completion of environmental impact statements and environmental assessments,
  • Specify page limits, promote information sharing through modern technology, and better define environmental effects and other key terms,
  • Reduce unnecessary burdens and delays for environmental reviews,
  • Allow agencies to establish procedures for adopting another agency’s determinations to increase efficiency,
  • Improve collaboration with State, local, and tribal governments.

Regulations guiding NEPA processes have not been comprehensively updated in over 40 years. For the U.S. Department of Transportation, these changes couldn’t come at a better time.  Simple, small projects can take up to a year to review, and larger projects can take many years more.

The Department is also vigorously implementing the President’s “One Federal Decision” initiative.  In fact, all relevant departments are working on a new process to handle the permitting of complicated, multi-agency projects within a new expedited time line.  This means less paperwork, and more timely improvements that will better protect the environment and our quality of life.

There is a real need in the U.S. for this kind of permitting and regulatory reform to speed up the delivery of critical infrastructure. Taken together, these initiatives will help reduce the risks that come with delays and ensure that critical infrastructure needs are sufficiently met.

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