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New rule to speed up infrastructure approvals

By |  July 16, 2020

The Trump administration’s action is a win for aggregate producers who should benefit from accelerated environmental reviews of highway projects. Photo: iStock.com/kozmoat98

The Trump administration issued a final rule to accelerate environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As a result, the administration says infrastructure can be built in a timely, efficient and affordable manner.

“By streamlining infrastructure approvals, we’ll further expand America’s unprecedented economic boom,” President Trump says in a statement.

The final rule marks the end of a multi-year review, which produced more than 1.1 million public comments and involved a range of stakeholders.

According to the administration, the final rule adjusts federal NEPA regulations by codifying certain court decisions to clarify NEPA’s application and by expanding public involvement in NEPA reviews through the use of modern technology.

The rule also establishes time limits of two years for the completion of environmental impact statements, when required, and one year for the completion of environmental assessments.

“Together, these common sense reforms will slash unnecessary government bureaucracy and accelerate important infrastructure projects all across the nation,” the administration says in a statement.

Streamlining infrastructure approvals

The federal environmental review process has historically been far too complex, costly and time consuming, the administration adds.

“Since NEPA’s enactment, the environmental review process has been burdensome for both federal agencies conducting reviews and Americans seeking permits or approvals,” the administration says. “Environmental impact statements average over 650 pages, and it takes federal agencies on average four and a half years to conduct required reviews.”

According to the Council on Environmental Quality, environmental impact statements for highway projects take more than seven years on average – and they often take a decade or more.

NEPA reviews are also frequently challenged in court, making it challenging for businesses and communities to plan, finance and build projects in the United States, the administration says.

Industry reaction

Photo: NSSGA

Stanley

The Trump administration’s rule drew praise from organizations such as the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA).

“NSSGA applauds the administration for releasing the final rule that will bring much-needed modernization and clarity to the National Environmental Policy Act process – while still maintaining strong environmental protections,” says Michele Stanley, vice president of government and regulatory affairs at NSSGA, in a statement. “Once enacted, this rule will remove unnecessary red tape and allow taxpayer dollars to be used to develop much needed infrastructure that sustains high-paying jobs, improves our communities and advances environmental stewardship.

“It has been more than 40 years since a comprehensive update of the NEPA regulations has been conducted,” Stanley adds. “During this time, the process has created duplicative agency actions resulting in year-long delays in the permitting of infrastructure projects. We have witnessed hundreds of public works projects, which are important to the livelihoods of all Americans, be halted and delayed by unnecessary lawsuits and bureaucratic setbacks that do nothing to advance the underlaying goals of NEPA. These setbacks caused by the current process [are] harming our economic potential needed to help our nation recover.”

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) endorsed the president’s commitment to speed up the delivery of transportation projects, but ARTBA President and CEO Dave Bauer says the full effects of building major projects requiring the NEPA reforms won’t be realized with more temporary federal highway and transit program funding extensions.

“Maximizing the benefits of the president’s NEPA reforms is another in a long line of reasons for Congress to complete action on a robust, multi-year surface transportation investment bill before the current law expires Sept. 30,” Bauer says in a statement.

The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) also weighed in on the final NEPA rule, with CEO Stephen Sandherr referring to the administration’s action as “common-sense reforms.”

“Significantly, under the final rule, projects still undergo an environmental review with public input,” Sandherr says in a statement. “The key difference is that those reviews will last months, instead of years, and it will become slightly harder for special interests to delay the process with unmerited lawsuits.”

Opposition views

Some of the president’s opponents took aim at the rule, arguing that the revised guidelines decrease climate change-related permitting requirements for infrastructure projects.

“For 50 years, the National Environmental Policy Act has stood as a cornerstone of America’s commitment to environmental stewardship,” says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) in a statement. “NEPA’s vital safeguards ensure that every community has a voice in our efforts to build the resilient infrastructure needed to combat the accelerating climate crisis. The Trump administration’s latest anti-science, anti-governance assault on this bedrock protection is another dangerous special interest giveaway that threatens environmental justice and climate sustainability.”

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) took a similar stance against the Trump administration’s new rule, noting that the administration willfully ignores the serious environmental and health impacts of its action.

“People have a right to weigh in before a highway project tears up their neighborhood or a pipeline goes through their backyard,” says Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of NRDC, in a statement. “Steamrolling their concerns will mean more polluted air, more contaminated water, more health threats and more environmental destruction.”

Kevin Yanik

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is the editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry magazine. Yanik can be reached at 216-706-3724 or kyanik@northcoastmedia.net.

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