A provision included in the compromise infrastructure bill unveiled this week could provide an unexpected boost for large freight projects stalled by what some consider burdensome environmental permitting regulations.
If it makes it through the negotiating process, the provision in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would codify former President Donald Trump’s One Federal Decision framework, issued by the White House in 2018. The framework was part of a 2017 Trump executive order aimed at reforming and streamlining the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for major infrastructure projects.
Trump’s executive order was issued as a final rule in July 2020 and went into effect last September. However, President Joe Biden revoked the rule as part of a series of his own executive orders issued on Jan. 20, the day he took office.
Seeing parts of the One Federal Decision regulation resurrected in the current infrastructure bill was therefore a surprise, according to Fred Wagner, an environmental policy expert at the law firm Venable.
“From the very beginning of the Biden administration it was pretty clear there was a great deal of antipathy towards the Trump administration in how it dealt with NEPA and environmental reform,” Wagner told FreightWaves. “Biden thought Trump’s reforms went too far, which was why he rescinded them in his very first week as president.”
Wagner said that while he wasn’t privy to negotiations on the language included in the infrastructure package, “the way you get [Republicans] to agree to move this bill along is to include this kind of a provision.”
The provision in the bill includes some aspects of Trump’s executive order “that triggered the most vociferous opposition,” which caught some people off guard, Wagner said.
For example, it proposes to limit the “alternative analysis” section of environmental impact statements to 200 pages. The lead agency overseeing a major project would be required to develop a schedule to complete the environmental review process for the project within two years after publishing a notice of intent. The provision would also require Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to develop “categorical exclusions” to accelerate project delivery.
“Page limits, so-called shot clocks for NEPA reviews, and the expansion of [categorical exclusions] were all items that incoming leadership at [Biden’s] White House Council on Environmental Quality opposed,” Wagner said.
Wagner said all types of freight expansion projects could benefit heavily from the provision, including port-rail, port-highway intermodal connections, as long as they’re supported with federal funding.
The American Trucking Associations, which praised Trump’s NEPA forms last year, was equally supportive of the current provision in the compromise bill.
“It currently takes seven years on average for highway construction projects to get through federal permitting, creating an enormous obstacle to modernization,” ATA told FreightWaves in a statement. “Those delays mean more traffic congestion and more harmful emissions into the atmosphere. Streamlining this process is good for motor carriers, good for motorists and good for the environment.”
- Power Index: Top 10 Biden regulatory reviews affecting freight markets
- What transportation can expect from Biden’s first 100 days
- White House proposes slashing timelines for highway projects