John Porcari: Getting The Facts Straight on Environmental Permitting Delays

John Porcari has spent years trying to sort out the reasons for the long delays in gaining approvals for public works infrastructure projects in the U.S. As became clear in his testimony on May 3 before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, he’s learned a few things:

“The single most important action Congress can undertake to accelerate project delivery is to provide steady, long-term, and predictable funding. With greater certainty in project funding, project sponsors can more effectively plan their projects and will be incentivized to complete the planning and approvals process as quickly as possible and get to construction, enabling greater coordination among stakeholders to develop and design a project that avoids, minimizes or mitigates negative environmental impacts.”

“Recognizing that the most complex and controversial infrastructure projects require direct engagement by senior leadership, and benefit greatly from passionate advocacy, Congress could consider identifying the critical infrastructure priorities for the nation, for example working with the States to identify the top three projects in each state. Congress could then ensure that these projects receive the statutory and fiscal resources needed to produce timely and efficient delivery.”

“The overwhelming evidence shows that the causes of delay for these major projects are more often tied to local/state and project-specific factors, agency priorities, project funding levels, local opposition to a project, project complexity, or late changes in project scope.”

Only four percent of Federally assisted highway projects require the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement, the most detailed review document. Over 90% proceed under a Categorical Exclusion (CE), the simplest, most straight-forward review under NEPA.

Claims by states that “resource constraints” are inhibiting their efforts to streamline reviews don’t square with the facts. FHWA and FTA have the authority to fund dedicated staff at reviewing or permitting agencies that receive federal funds. So far, none have asked for the money.

“Making significant changes to environmental protections without fully implementing the process improvements included in our most recent surface transportation authorizations, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) may be counter-productive. Eighteen separate provisions in the Highway title of the Fast Act alone are designed to increase innovation and improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability in the planning, environmental review, design, and engineering. Thus, enacting additional provisions for streamlining, before allowing full implementation of the FAST Act, could result in greater uncertainty and longer delays as project proponents await agency implementation of the changes and would likely lead to wasted time and effort for agencies. In fact, the USDOT Inspector General (IG) found that the USDOT has completed work on more than half of the 42 streamlining provisions directed by Congress under MAP-21, but now has delayed implementing a significant number of MAP-21’s reforms because they must be revised to comply with additional streamlining provisions mandated in the FAST Act.”

John D. Porcari is President of the US Advisory Services at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff. He was previously Secretary of Transportation for Maryland and Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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About Bill Reinhardt

Editor of Public Works Financing newsletter

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