Reforming the federal environmental review process for infrastructure projects figures prominently in a new report issued by the Problem Solvers Caucus. The Caucus comprises 48 members of the House of Representatives—24 Democrats and 24 Republicans—“committed to forging bipartisan cooperation on key issues.” Called Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure, the report was developed by the Caucus’s Infrastructure Working Group, which was created to analyze policies and find points of bipartisan consensus to address the enormous need for new infrastructure and the current backlog of deferred maintenance. Areas covered in the report include highways, roads and bridges, transit and railways, ports and airports, water and sewer systems, energy systems and the power grid, and broadband and communications networks.
MAP-21 and FAST-41
Regarding expedited environmental reviews and permitting for infrastructure, the report relies on ideas included in two pieces of legislation: the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act of 2012 (MAP-21) and Title 41 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015 (FAST-41). MAP-21 was the first long-term surface transportation authorization enacted since 2005. The act’s Subtitle C requires the Department of Transportation (DOT) to implement initiatives to accelerate delivery of projects funded by the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration and to report on the initiatives’ progress. The DOT developed a plan with 42 actions to meet Subtitle C requirements.
FAST-41 reauthorized and changed some MAP-21 provisions and includes initiatives to improve the timeliness, predictability, and transparency of the federal environmental review and authorization process for covered infrastructure projects. A summary of FAST-41’s environmental review provisions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is here.
Speed up implementation
But the Caucus’s report notes that many of the provisions authorized in MAP-21 and FAST-41 have not been implemented by the DOT. The report recommends that Congress encourage the DOT to prioritize issuing regulations to implement those provisions as quickly as possible.
Furthermore, says the Caucus, Congress should adapt FAST-41 streamlining provisions to other infrastructure legislation to reduce approval delivery time and costs without jeopardizing safety. Options for improvement include creation of a finite permit challenge period; naming a lead agency to coordinate cross-agency permitting and resolve disputes in multiagency reviews; and launch a pilot self-certification option under which recipients of federal funding may self-certify, at their own risk and responsibility, that their right-of-way acquisitions and project plans meet all federal requirements.
The Caucus also recommends that the government increase tools, education, and technical assistance available to state and local agencies regarding new project delivery and financing models.
The report includes a frequently cited number—a funding gap for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure that will reach $126 billion by 2020. Solutions offered include:
- Strengthening and increasing access to Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds;
- Expanding eligibility criteria to access funding in the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) and other federal financing programs to encourage more small system applications in rural communities;
- Examining the growing affordability strain on ratepayers and its impact on water infrastructure maintenance and repair;
- Creating a federal Advanced Research Projects Agency to directly support high-risk, high-rewards technology development (e.g., innovative materials, remote sensors);
- Examining the growing threat posed by harmful algal blooms to many drinking water systems across the country; and
- Leveraging existing investments in federal transportation projects to improve water quality by incentivizing the inclusion of green infrastructure or other innovative technologies to capture and treat stormwater generated by a project’s footprint.
“It’s always better for the country when we act together,” said Tom Reed (R-NY), cochair of the Caucus. “The bipartisan policy solutions we’ve delivered provide Congress the building blocks necessary to craft a comprehensive infrastructure plan that both parties can agree to. We’ve paved a bipartisan path to get to ‘yes’ and look forward to working with key leaders in Congress to find the right mix of policies to create legislation that can, and should, be enacted into law as soon as possible.”