An Executive Order Pushes Infrastructure Forward

Addressing our abysmal infrastructure condition, President Trump signed an executive order that calls for a less-stringent permit process and fewer environmental regulations

By Elizabeth Delehanty

By now you’ve probably said, read, and heard the words “D plus” more times than you care to recall. The abysmal and unfortunately long-standing grade of our cumulative national infrastructure has been the industry’s hot topic for years, prompting the thought that not much has changed in nearly half-a-decade. On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump promised investment of $1 trillion for our infrastructure, but the details on this plan have been vague or avoided from the beginning of his term in office. People were speculating that this was just a false promise. Investment and confidence in infrastructure was doing well during the beginning of his presidency due to all the infrastructure talk, but seven months in with a lack of action, both confidence and investment was ebbing.

Finally, in middle of August, we saw movement from the White House.

President Trump signed an executive order designed to expedite the permitting process for infrastructure projects. Trump optimistically remarked, “Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways gleaming across our very, very beautiful land.” Taking a broad view of infrastructure, the purpose of the order notes its impact on economy, world trade, job creation, worker wages, and costs of goods and services. “The poor condition of America’s infrastructure has been estimated to cost a typical American household thousands of dollars each year,” it reads. The statement goes on to acknowledge the inefficiencies of the existing permitting processes and the role those play in delaying infrastructure investments and completions.

Ali A. Zaidi, Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy, and Science of the Obama Administration said “From investors to developers, federal permitting has long presented a complexity to be navigated. After all, this is where the rubber meets the road: permitting is when statutory mandates and policy values go from abstract to tangible. Like administrations past, this one, too, is making efforts to ease this complexity. We are staying on top of these changes — both what’s in front of us and what’s around the corner.”

Sounds great but how will it be done? The Order implements a ‘One Federal Decision’ policy that forgoes the current convoluted network of agency reviews and instead enacts the lead Federal agency to communicate with relevant Federal agencies. Every agency involved will sign a joint Record of Decision. Additionally, the Order establishes a two-year goal for processing environmental documents for infrastructure projects.

During a news conference on August 14, Trump said that standard highway projects can take up to 17 years to approve due to heavy regulations and red tape. Now Trump’s order removes the Obama administration’s requirement that builders take sea level rise driven by climate change into account when constructing in flood plains. “Many, many stories where it takes 20 and 25 years just to get approvals to start construction of a fairly routine highway. Highway builders must get up to 16 different approvals involving nine different federal agencies governed by 29 different statutes. One agency alone can stall a project for many, many years and even decades. Not only does this cost our economy billions of dollars, but it also denies our citizens the safe and modern infrastructure they deserve,” he said, pointing to an indecipherable flowchart representing the current permitting process. Next he presented a much shorter flowchart delineating his new two-year timeline. He said the order protects environmentally dangerous infrastructure from approval by “simply not approving it.” If review agencies fail to streamline their process and cause delays, Trump promised that they will be held accountable.

A speedy yet efficient infrastructure permit process where agencies are all held accountable is a step in the right direction. “My administration is working every day to deliver the world-class infrastructure that our people deserve and, frankly, that our country deserves,” said President Trump.

Although the Executive Order is not rescinding any environmental concerns and ensures they will be protected, environmental professionals and groups were keen on voicing their dissent for reducing the environmental review down by five years. A huge critique has been that the Federal Government lacks a system that is capable of efficiently tracking down the costs of the environmental review and permitting process for major infrastructure projects. This would result in mistakes. “Arbitrary decisions and artificial deadlines can lead to costly mistakes we’ll all pay for down the line,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The executive order is a good sign that our President is endeavoring to lead our country towards the realization of the updated and upgraded infrastructure it sorely needs, but it cannot be denied that much of the details have, yet again, either not been disclosed or intentionally avoided. To date, President Trump’s budget has called for $200 billion in infrastructure investment from the federal government, leaving the rest of us to wonder where the remaining $800 billion promised will come from.

Infrastructure is for everyone, a bipartisan issue that contributes to and keeps our economy moving. Now that were streamlining the approval process, our government either finds a way to invest now, or we will all pay for it later.

Elizabeth Delehanty is an Assistant Editor for American Infrastructure magazine. She may be reached at elizabeth@penpubinc.com.

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