Fix it fast
The White House has committed to expediting the interagency approval process for transportation infrastructure projects that provide direct economic benefit beyond the city or state in which they are located. In February, President Obama set a goal of cutting in half the timelines for major projects.
Reform of the federal permitting process began in August 2011 with a presidential memo directing five departments to identify high-priority projects with the potential to quickly create jobs and fast-forward them through the system by managing collaboration and communication between agencies. The exercise advanced 14 projects and resulted in lessons learned — such as ensuring early consultation with project sponsors and designating a lead coordinating agency — that could be replicated and applied to other large federal projects.
A March 2012 executive order expanded on the new workflow process by instructing agencies across the government to speed up permit and environmental reviews for important infrastructure projects and create mechanisms for them to be accountable. The Obama administration views these large projects as opportunities to help spur the sluggish economy. The executive order required the formation of a steering committee to identify important regional and national projects, adoption of a federal action plan on how to cut red tape and plans from each agency about how they intended to achieve the federal goals.
The White House guidelines are intended to make the permitting and review process transparent, consistent and predictable. Agencies are expected to set and adhere to timelines and schedules for completion of reviews, set clear permitting performance goals and track progress against those goals.
The Office of Management and Budget has a “dashboard” — www.permits.performance.gov — that provides an update on all major permits in the federal pipeline.
Within weeks, President Obama said his administration was reducing red tape for 50 projects. Five of the projects include dredging to deepen the main channels for the ports of Jacksonville, Miami, Savannah, Charleston and New York/New Jersey.
Beyond the harbor deepening projects at the five ports, the administration gave priority to the rebuilding of the Bayonne Bridge between New York and New Jersey so that large ships can pass beneath it and construction of a new intermodal container transfer facility in Jacksonville. It also is coordinating agencies reviewing the $3.5 billion replacement of the bridge that carries traffic over the Columbia River on Interstate 5 between Washington and Oregon, with a record of decision targeted for August 2015.
Officials insist no corners are being cut with regard to making sure projects are designed and constructed in accordance with public health, safety and environmental standards, or gathering public input.
Federal permits and environmental approvals are not the only factors that hold up infrastructure improvements. Projects can be delayed due to poor project design, incomplete applications, uncertain funding or state and local reviews.
Driving the process is a Permits Rapid Response Team co-chaired by Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari and the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In addition to speeding up delivery of specific projects, the team reengineered the approval process to reduce redundant steps and institutionalize the best management practices, Porcari told House lawmakers May 15 at an informal public meeting held by a special panel of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee tasked with making recommendations for improving the freight system in the next surface transportation reauthorization bill.
Porcari said the environmental go-ahead for replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York was completed in less than 18 months using the new process rather than the typical four to five years.
Doing multiagency and multi-government reviews simultaneously rather than consecutively and adding categorical exclusions have sped up decisions. That’s important “because on a large multibillion project the cost growth is $60 million to $70 million per year or more” from inflation, he said. “So, we have a very strong incentive to move those forward.”
The Army Corps of Engineers also has implemented a better internal planning process for feasibility studies, with the goal of completing them in 18 months, with a maximum timeframe of three years. The “3-3-3 rule” also requires the reports to be completed for under $3 million and fit in a 3-inch binder.
On May 17, President Obama signed another presidential memorandum directing all relevant agencies to adopt the best practices for efficient review and permitting for all projects.
In a speech that day in Baltimore, Obama described why he is putting so much emphasis on the physical backbone of the nation.
“I want to put people back to work improving our roads, our bridges, our airports, our ports. The Panama Canal is being revamped down in Panama so that it can accommodate even bigger ships. And these cargo ships are so big that if we don’t remodel our ports here in the United States, they can’t dock at our ports. They’ll dock someplace else. We’ll lose that business,” he said, according to a transcript.
The White House also released a report showing how agencies have measured up to the new federal plan. As of mid-May, the federal permitting and review processes for more than 40 percent of the Big 50 projects were complete.
Accelerated permitting is no guarantee of clear sailing for infrastructure projects. The Port of Miami’s excavation, for example, is only moving ahead after the state of Florida agreed to pick up the $77 million federal share of the tab because Congress has failed to appropriate the necessary funds.
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