Trump Wants to Shrink Federal Role in Infrastructure Review

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By Shaun Courtney

The federal government should shrink its environmental oversight role and reduce its permitting timeline to two years for infrastructure projects, President Donald Trump said when signing an executive order Aug. 15.

The executive order also rescinds an Obama-era order that required federally funded projects to meet flood risk reduction standards. The policy was created based on concerns over climate change effects on infrastructure.

Part of the expedited review would be the creation of a new process involving “one federal decision,” and appointing one federal agency to take the lead on “major” infrastructure projects.

“No longer will we allow the infrastructure of our magnificent country to crumble and decay. While protecting the environment, we will build gleaming new roads, bridges, railways, waterways, tunnels and highways,” Trump said in a briefing.

The announcement followed an infrastructure meeting among administration officials, including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her deputy, Jeff Rosen. Neither the president nor Chao provided an update on the status of administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure proposal. Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, told reporters the “hope” is to have an infrastructure bill in the House this year, after tax reform.

‘One Federal Decision’

The administration said that part of the expedited review would be the creation of a new process of “one federal decision” for major infrastructure projects. Projects would be given a schedule and missed deadlines would result in the issue being elevated to senior agency officials.

The order also creates a working group to review federal agencies’ environmental assessment processes to identify any inefficiencies.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires government agencies to engage affected communities on major infrastructure projects’ potential impacts—from bridge locations to wetland destruction.

Secretary Chao said her agency has already identified “more than two dozen policies and rules that will streamline project delivery and environmental permitting.”

Interest Groups React

The move to change environmental standards was criticized by environmental and watchdog groups.

“We can modernize our country without rubber-stamping hazard and fast-tracking harm,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “Arbitrary decisions and artificial deadlines can lead to costly mistakes we’ll all pay for down the line.”Taxpayers for Common Sense opposed the proposal to rescind the Obama-era flood order.

“It would effectively force taxpayers to subsidize construction that puts people and property in harm’s way,” Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said in a statement. “Taxpayers cannot afford to subsidize high risk construction and then be asked to rebuild that same development when the inevitable disaster strikes.

However, others praised the move for speeding up the process of addressing the nation’s infrastructure needs.

Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, senior adviser at Dawson & Associates, said the arbitration-like system with one lead agency worked well when building infrastructure following Hurrican Katrina.

“It worked,” he told Bloomberg BNA in an interview.

Flowers said creating a timeline that agencies agree on will help move major infrastructure projects ahead.

“It has a tendency to put a mark on the wall and everyone has to try to achieve it,” said Flowers. “In general, anything you can do to speed up the process is very worthwhile.”

Previous Permit Proposals

The president issued a similar order Jan. 24 calling for expedited environmental review of priority infrastructure projects.

Trump also called for federal agencies to expedite project review when he was speaking June 9 at the Transportation Department. He announced the creation of a council to help infrastructure project managers navigate the federal bureaucracy, in part by creating an online dashboard for project tracking. However, the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council was actually created under the 2015 FAST Act and implemented by the Obama administration.

The June 9 announcement reflected a proposal laid out in an April letter from the Business Roundtable, calling on the administration to expedite permitting of infrastructure projects.

With assistance from Brandon Ross, Cheryl Bolen and David Schultz.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bna.comTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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