NEPA Reform Needed to Improve Local Infrastructure
Posted February 24, 2020
The nation’s infrastructure needs some love.
To reverse the deteriorating state of the U.S. transportation, communication and energy supply networks – which recently earned a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers – we need a national commitment to more purposefully and efficiently get important projects off the drawing board and into development. Without it, America’s ability to compete in the 21st-century economy will be hindered.
As we’ve discussed (here and here), proposed reforms to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are critical to accelerating much-needed infrastructure improvements in every state and, in turn, creating good-paying jobs and spurring economic growth. Review processes under NEPA – which was last updated in 1978 – have significantly impeded infrastructure progress, delaying projects for years and years.
This week in Washington, D.C., the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is scheduled to hold the second of two public hearings on proposed NEPA reforms. Earlier this month in Colorado a coalition of industry and labor representatives made the case for modernizing infrastructure permitting processes. At the center of this discussion are the communities across the U.S. that bear the burden of postponed developments and deferred investments.
In Colorado, numerous projects have been delayed due to NEPA reviews including the Interstate-70 widening near Denver and the Interstate-25 extension near Colorado Springs, which would resolve roadway bottlenecks that prevent potential tourism growth. According to Colorado State Sen. Paul Lundeen and State Rep. Lois Landgraf, transportation upgrades are needed to sustain the economic expansion tied to statewide travel. From their recently published op-ed in the Colorado Springs Gazette:
“As state legislators, we have seen firsthand how exorbitant costs and endless delays obstruct necessary infrastructure projects from being realized, despite the clear added value these projects bring to help grow the local and state economy…It is important for the CEQ to hear from local Colorado voices to ensure that the federal government understands the need for roads, bridges, and tunnels that ensure safety and ease of movement.”
For many Americans, complicated and drawn-out environmental review processes directly result in job losses and economic uncertainty. For example, in Western Colorado, permitting delays have meant undeveloped energy leases, roadways, water storage facilities and utility lines, which directly impact livelihoods in rural communities.
And environmental reviews also affect transit proposals in major urban centers, like New York City, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is awaiting approval of their congestion pricing system, which would raise billions of dollars for citywide reconstruction. For agencies like MTA, environmental impact statements took an average of 2,691 days to complete – the shortest time any agency completed such a review was 637 days, per a report by the National Association of Environmental Professionals.
In Mississippi, NEPA-related slowdowns have contributed to the deterioration of roads, bridges and dams and stalled the development of natural gas and oil facilities, which support more than 80,000 good-paying jobs across the state. Mayors Sally Garland and Phil Torjusen discussed the local impacts of ever-lengthening project delays in a recent column in the Clarion-Ledger:
“The average length of a NEPA impact assessment for transportation projects tripled from around two years in the 1970s to over six years in 2011. As the red tape thickened, NEPA failed to keep up with changes to environmental policy and America's infrastructure needs.”
The Mississippi mayors pointed out that nearly 10% of the state’s bridges are considered “structurally deficient,” prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency in 2018 to shut down 500 decaying overpasses. And failing roads are an added financial burden for drivers, costing Mississippians $2.9 billion annually in repairs and lost time to traffic congestion – about $2,000 per driver in parts of the state.
A similar story is playing out in Arkansas, where NEPA permitting has impeded critical infrastructure restoration. Currently, one-in-five dams in the state has “high” or “significant hazard” potential and may not withstand serious flooding, per the American Society of Civil Engineers. And the energy sector – which contributes more than $8 billion to the state’s economy – would benefit from the timely approval of new natural gas pipelines and other job-generating projects.
We’ve said before that an improved NEPA process is essential to U.S. energy development and economic progress (see here and here), and all too often unnecessarily burdensome reviews hold up public transit construction, roadway repairs and environmental safeguards that impact small businesses and American families.
Streamlining federal regulations would shorten commutes, boost regional tourism, improve energy operations and better protect communities across the U.S. As policymakers and stakeholders consider implementing reforms in Washington this week, it’s worth acknowledging that infrastructure development and environmental protections can coexist – and modernizing NEPA can pave the way.
About The Author
Sam Winstel is a writer for the American Petroleum Institute. He comes to API from Edelman, where he supported communications marketing strategies for clients across the firm’s energy and federal government practices. Originally from Dallas, Texas, Sam graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina, and he currently resides in Washington, D.C.