Is it just me, or are things beginning to heat up?

Feb. 3, 2020

This column published as "On Public Trust" in February 2020 issue

As I was in the process of buttoning up this issue, a piece ran in the New York Times that limned some proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act as regards infrastructure. 

The new rule would no longer require agencies, including DOTs, to consider the “cumulative” environmental consequences of new infrastructure. It would also narrow the range of projects requiring environmental review. At present, the Act requires the federal government to make detailed analyses of any project that could have significant environmental effects—including long-term effects that may having direct bearing on climate change.

President Trump characterized the existing policy as causing “significant uncertainty and delays that can increase costs, derail important projects, and threaten jobs for American workers and labor union members.” His administration’s proposed revisions would “benefit our economy and environment.” They are expected to be made public shortly after this issue goes to press and a 60-day public comment period will follow.

The Trump Administration has been none too friendly to environmentalists as a whole, but this proposed change in policy seems less like a poke in the eye to environmental groups than an effort to win over construction industry trade unions, many of which have long been vocal in their complaint that the NEP Act stifles projects and hurts jobs.

One concern voiced in the NYT article came from Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Saban Center for Climate Change Law, who said “[the change] has the potential to distort infrastructure planning by making it easier to ignore predictable futures that could severely degrade the projects.” By way of example, Gerrard suggested the change would put roads and bridges at significant risk because developers would not be required to analyze whether sea-level rise threatened to eventually submerge or otherwise compromise a project.

It’s a good point and one that is right at the heart of the matter for the road and bridge industry. Let’s for the moment put aside the environmental issues (which, full disclosure, I feel are deeply concerning) and consider only how dismantling oversight could compromise the longevity of a given project. Project planners depend on the results of environmental review to determine both the worthiness of a build and the odds of getting the lifespan out of it, when all is said and done, that is desired. Knowing in advance the full-scope circumstances of a project site is essential to safety, return on investment, and enforcing the public trust that is an inextricable part of infrastructure development.

I suspect that even if this alteration to the Act goes through, many, if not most, contractors and agencies will continue to toe the line of environmental review—and they will do so to their own benefit and to the benefit of the communities in which they serve and operate. This all might be a tempest in a teacup. Reliable firms will continue to play above board. Perhaps what this change—if it goes through—will really do is simply separate the wheat from the chaff.

About The Author: Budzynski is senior managing editor of Roads & Bridges.

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