Why do highway construction projects often take a good part of a generation — an average of 13 years — to complete?
Many believe the answer lies in two words: excessive review. Everyone in construction seems to favor streamlining the review process. Both parties (and President Obama, in his State of the Union address) have urged a speedup.
Lots of proposals are out there, some even in the MAP-21 transportation bill, which passed in 2012. Some would radically reform the present system, giving a single “one stop shop” strong authority to set deadlines. Yet progress is painfully slow.
“A highway or bridge project often takes 13 years from concept to conclusion; most of that time is taken in review, not in construction,” said Brian Turmail, a spokesperson of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) in Arlington, Va.
“Thirteen years is absolutely too long,” said Nick Goldstein, vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) in Washington, D.C. “I’ve seen other estimates where a project can take even longer — from nine to 19 years.”
President Obama recognized the problem in his Jan. 28 address, pledging to “slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible.”
Critics paint a bleak picture of the present review process, which can require the approval of many agencies.
“MAP-21 includes provisions for more coordination between agencies; I think there will be some improvement because of that, but it’s still a mish-mash when you have a major infrastructure project,” said Brian Deery, AGC’s senior director, highway and transportation. “Approvals might be required from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, even the Bureau of Indian Affairs if they find ancient burial grounds.
“The problem is, all these agencies are reviewing the project from a different point of view. It takes forever for a project to get through the bureaucracy. More than half the time on a transportation project is spent in the planning and environmental review process. Certainly the longer it takes for a project to get out, the more it costs.”
“Projects can’t move forward unless there’s an agreement, for starters, on what the scope of the review should be,” said Philip K. Howard, chairman of Common Good, a nonpartisan reform group headquartered in New York. “A dozen or more departments will come to a meeting to review a project; there will be a disagreement, so they will decide to meet again and they will still disagree; the process just goes on forever. Anyone who wants to argue can hold the project up for six months or longer. No one is empowered on behalf of the government to decide when there has been enough review.”
One of the most “at risk” bridges in the world, for instance, is the Bonner Bridge at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. Efforts to replace it have been held up in litigation for years. A project to raise the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge to allow large container ships into the Port of Newark, N.J., likewise has been stalled in environmental litigation for almost five years.
Proposals for Reform
Numerous construction industry and other organizations are now urging a radical reform in this infrastructure project review process.
“We think there should be clear rules, and firm deadlines, for each agency involved in a project,” said Turmail. “They should all respond in a set time; if they don’t, they should be out of the review process. Certainly we need strict review, but this should happen in such a way that one person can’t hold up the entire process for years. Under the present system, a lead agency has overall responsibility but there are often no clearly defined guidelines for the other agencies which are involved.”
Said ARTBA’s Goldstein: “We’re absolutely taking the position that the government should streamline the environmental and approval process for transportation projects; we’ve made some progress on project delivery during the last three transportation bills but there’s still a lot to do as far as putting recommendations into practice. MAP-21 includes proposals to expedite the process. For starters, we would expand the use of categorical exclusions — speeding review for projects, which don’t impact the environment in a big way. One problem is that even these exclusions can still take a couple of years.”
(Examples of expanded categorical exclusions: rights of way, or putting up poles along the rights of way.)
Goldstein pointed out that many improvements suggested in the transportation bills are optional, not mandatory.
“We have a new toolbox with a bunch of shiny new tools,” he said, “but they will only work as much as they are used. State departments of transportation (DOTs) need to request that they be used.”
Common Good’s Philip Howard proposes three levels of solution for holdups from lengthy environmental reviews:
“First, on reviews, give an official of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to draw the line and make decisions, including what the scope of the review should be. Second, severely restrict litigation over the review; we shouldn’t allow lawsuits to go on for years to prove that you have reviewed every single pebble. Thirdly, we’re working with Congress to create ’one-stop shops’ for all approvals. Say you have an important highway project. Instead of making the proponent go to 12 different federal, state and local agencies for approvals, designate a lead agency with the obligation of working with all the other agencies, and with the power to give final approval. On highway projects this one-stop agency would probably be the Department of Transportation.”
Asked how soon, in a best of all possible worlds, these changes could take place, Howard replied: “Probably within a year to 18 months.”
“We absolutely advocate giving DOT the authority to set deadlines,” said AGC’s Deery. “We would like to see very specific deadlines. We would also like to see concurrent review, having all the agencies get together at the same time so they can examine each project and all figure out what’s the best approach to building that project.”
How much time could be saved by implementing these proposals?
“You could probably reduce the review time of many highway projects from eight years to maybe 18 months and reduce the overall cost of the project, because time is money, by at least 20 percent,” Howard said. “Studies also suggest that implementing these across the board would allow hiring almost two million people over the next five years.”
Said AGC’s Deery: “Taking years off the review would save a lot of money. Inflation, materials, motorist delays, freight to be moved — all these things are impacted.”
The environmental community, of course, has legitimate interest in protecting the environment on highway and other construction projects. Answering these concerns within a faster framework is the challenge.
“We are actively starting to build coalitions to create a practical way of approving infrastructure projects while considering the social environment and social accountability but which doesn’t go on forever,” Howard said.