While running for the presidency in 2016, Donald Trump promised to provide relief to the stifling regulations that at-best delay and at-worst completely halt infrastructure projects. The maze of environmental regulatory hoops that must be jumped through to build a road, bridge, tunnel, etc. also massively increases the costs of these projects.
However, if the president’s proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) come to form, the regulatory hassles and headaches that overwhelm these projects could finally be reduced to a sensible and sustainable level.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency( EPA), NEPA “requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. The range of actions covered by NEPA is broad and includes: making decisions on permit applications, adopting federal land management actions, and constructing highways and other publicly-owned facilities.”
Signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970, NEPA was intended to provide oversight while ensuring large infrastructure projects did not cause undue environmental harms. As with most government programs, NEPA has vastly expanded in size and scope over the past five decades.
In its current form, NEPA has devolved into a red tape-laden leviathan that overly zealous bureaucrats use to endlessly postpone and all-too-often block necessary infrastructure projects.
While announcing his proposal on January 9, Trump said, “America’s most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process, and I’ve been talking about it for a long time.”
“These endless delays waste money, keep projects from breaking ground, and deny jobs to our nation’s incredible workers,” the president continued. “Now, we’re going to have strong regulation, but it’s going to go very quickly.”
In case you are curious about how long a typical environmental review for a federal infrastructure project takes, the answer will probably shock you. According to Mary B. Neumayr, chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality, the average amount of time it takes to complete an environmental review for a single infrastructure project is well over four years. The excessively long environmental reviews also include, on average, a 600-page environmental statement.
If a typical federally funded infrastructure project takes this long before workers can even consider breaking ground, no wonder our roads and bridges are falling apart.
For comparison sake, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, with the goal of building a national network of highways. Ten years later, the largest public works project in American history was completed. Within the span of a decade, at a cost of $25 billion, more than 41,000 miles of road had been laid, giving birth to the nation’s first interstate highway system.
It is literally impossible to imagine that the federal government—under the current form of NEPA—could even contemplate, let alone attempt a similar infrastructure project.
In other words, NEPA has morphed into an easy way for bureaucrats and misguided environmentalists to veto necessary infrastructure projects. With enough outcry and legal maneuvering, a tiny (but very vocal) minority can pull the plug on a publicly needed and desired road, bridge, tunnel, etc.
Fortunately, the current president is well aware of how NEPA has been abused to prevent progress. Unlike most politicians, Trump is a builder—in the most literal sense of the word.
Among his proposed changes, the president seeks to enact a one-year limit on environmental assessments as well as a two-year limit (and page number limit) on environmental impact statements.
The president’s preferred changes seem like common sense. Two years sure seems like more than enough time to simply study the environmental impact of a new road or bridge, especially with today’s technological tools.
Imagine if this streamlined approach was applied to President Obama’s so-called stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. According to the Obama administration, the $787 billion stimulus plan was supposed to provide an economic boost by investing close to $100 billion in infrastructure spending. It was also touted by the administration as an instant job booster. They claimed it would spur thousands and thousands of well-paying construction jobs as Americans struggled to find work during the economic abyss known as the Great Recession.
A few years later, during a meeting of his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Obama chuckled when asked about the lack of construction jobs created since his stimulus package. Obama dismissively admitted, “Shovel-ready wasn’t as … uh … shovel-ready as we thought.”
Hopefully, Trump’s proposed NEPA reforms undo the regulatory chokehold that prevents the construction of long-overdue infrastructure upgrades while actually providing well-paying shovel-ready jobs.