CAPITOL STEPS

Caught in the act

Article November 28, 2001
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The highway community needs to rally to support prompt enactment of legislation to streamline the process that governs the envi


The highway community needs to rally to support prompt enactment of legislation to streamline the process that governs the environmental review of highway and bridge projects. Over the past year, the Highway Users has been working to garner bipartisan support for a plan that will speed project approvals without changing environmental laws or standards.


Across America, needed highway projects are trapped in a bureaucratic spider web. Even though these projects are life-savers . . . although they will save motorists precious time and costly fuel currently now wasted in gridlock . . . and even though they will cut the increased tailpipe emissions of vehicles stuck in start-stop traffic, they are being delayed and sometimes blocked by a federal review process that’s evolved for the worse over the last 30 years. Ironically, the governing federal law now slowing air quality improvements was enacted to protect the environment.


According to the Federal Highway Administration, it now takes approximately 12 years to move a major highway project through the stages of planning, design, environmental review and right-of-way acquisition. Typically, up to five years of that time is spent navigating the environmental review process.


Surprisingly, most of the delays have nothing to do with meeting environmental standards—they have far more to do with anti-highway activists who oppose all highway improvements. Everyone agrees that transportation projects must be designed to meet too stringent environmental laws. The laws aren’t the problem—it’s the bureaucratic process implementing these laws responsible for the tremendous delays. Transportation experts point to three main problems:


1) No leader: Six cabinet-level departments (agriculture, commerce, defense, interior, justice and transportation) along with three federal agencies (Council on Environmental Quality, Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency) have jurisdiction over some part of the 65 federal laws, regulations and executive orders that directly address the environmental effect of improving roads. When they clash over the purpose and need of a highway project, no department has the authority to force a final decision;


2) No deadlines: There are no binding time-tables for making a decision, thus the No. 1 tactic of anti-highway activists is delay; and


3) Overlapping regulators: Most states have their own environmental review requirements and actually conduct all studies required by federal law, often making the federal review a duplication of state efforts.


While needed highway and bridge projects are trapped in this bureaucratic nightmare, the safety, environmental, time- and fuel-saving benefits of those projects also are held hostage. A 1999 report by the Highway Users found that fixing the nation’s 167 worst freeway bottlenecks would, over 20 years, reduce the number of automobile crashes at those sites by nearly 290,000, preventing 141,000 injuries and more than 1,100 fatalities. Similarly, tailpipe emissions of carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds would drop by almost half, and greenhouse gas emissions would fall by over 70% at those sites. Meanwhile, truckers would save an average of 19 minutes and gridlock-weary commuters twice that.


Of course, none of these benefits can be realized until the project moves from the drawing board to the real world. We’re paying too high a price for delays built into the current system.


Congress should act this year to expedite the environmental review of highway projects and eliminate the current bureaucratic maze. The Highway Users is encouraging Congress to enact a review process we call "cooperative environmentalism"—a new approach to shortening the environmental review process without compromising environmental values. As the name suggests, cooperative environmentalism provides the framework for all parties to work together to protect the environment while simultaneously improving highway mobility and safety.


Cooperative environmentalism addresses the inefficiencies inherent in the current 30-year-old review process by:


  • Allowing responsible transportation officials to establish reasonable, but binding, deadlines for comment by natural resource agencies;


  • Ensuring that transportation officials, after consultation with resource agencies, will be the final arbiters of the identified transportation purpose and need of a proposed project; and


  • Giving states the option of undertaking the responsibilities of the federal agencies in the review process.


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