Witnesses gave a Senate committee recommendations on how to streamline the permitting process to expedite project delivery.
Witnesses on Wednesday told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that investment into American surface infrastructure is needed and the permitting process should be streamlined to expedite the delivery of projects.
“It’s essential that Congress invests in our infrastructure and specifically our surface transportation,” said committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., in his opening statement during the hearing titled “The Economic Benefits of Highway Infrastructure Investment and Accelerated Project Delivery.” “That’s why we must pass a multiyear reauthorization of the highway funding bill that is on time and fiscally responsible. If Congress fails to act, state and local governments will not have the funding certainty that they need to plan and deliver vital infrastructure projects for the American people.”
Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, said his state tries to have a five-year capital program, but the lack of federal funding certainty prevents it from committing to those projects. If Congress does not bolster the highway trust fund, which is set to go insolvent in 2021, and provide funding certainty, it would remove 35 to 40 percent of Missouri’s capital program, he said.
The Federal Highway Administration estimates that every dollar spent on bridge and road improvements result in a benefit of $5.20 from reduced vehicle and system operating costs and reduced emissions, McKenna said. Steven Demetriou, a member of the Business Roundtable Infrastructure Committee, said a study by his committee found a $1 investment can return $3.70 in economic growth over 20 years and increase the real GDP by nearly $6 trillion over the next two decades.
“This is why it’s so important to increase investments in federal trust funds, especially the highway trust fund, where additional revenue is needed just to keep the fund solvent at current baseline spending levels,” Demetriou said.
McKenna, also the vice president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, called for streamlining the permitting process to expedite the delivery of projects. Fellow witnesses Demetriou and Michael Replogle, deputy commissioner for policy for the New York City Department of Transportation, shared the same sentiment.
“While federal support for our investments is essential, federally funded transportation projects do often take longer to complete due to requirements administered by multiple agencies under dozens of statutes,” Replogle said. “But expedited delivery need not and should not undermine important environmental safeguards and protections.”
Ranking member Thomas Carper, D-Del., said more than 95 percent of highway projects are categorically excluded from review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Furthermore, three highway bills passed since 2005 have included more than 50 environmental streamlining provisions, he said.
“While I will consider all ideas fairly … I just want to be clear I won’t support legislation that weakens environmental protection in the name of accelerating transportation project delivery,” Carper said in his opening statement.
McKenna said the NEPA assignment program, in which several states are participating, could be improved by simplifying the assignment application and audit process and by allowing states in the program to be solely responsible for the development of their policies so long as federal laws and U.S. Department of Transportation requirements and guidance are met.
He also said the authorization of any federal agency to apply a categorical exclusion that has been adopted by another agency, which would make categorical exclusion interchangeable, would also streamline the process.
“We do not wish to impact the environment negatively, but we do think that on a process standpoint, even in simple projects where we have categorical exclusions, that coordination can still be improved,” McKenna said. “If we can shave on average three months off of 95 percent of the projects that we do, that’s a substantial return.”
Replogle recommended enhancing local authority by increased federal funding directly to cities and developing concurrent permit processing guidelines. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also voiced support of concurrent review process during a speech to AASHTO last week.
The Business Roundtable supports the administration’s one federal decision policy, Demetriou said, which would encourage the codification of a two-year deadline to reach a decision on all proposed infrastructure projects.
A lack of long-term investment could result in negative effects in America’s competitiveness in the worldwide market, Demetriou said.
“I think it’s a global competitive situation for the United States because most of us are global companies and we’re trying to figure out where to put our assets. Everything is set up to do it here in the United States except for the infrastructure equation that needs to get solved,” Demetriou said.