Is executive treatment enough?

Questions surround President Bush's order regarding environmental streamlining

Article November 18, 2002
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I'm convinced some of the federal government's finest
screeners will never search an airline bag.

Try slipping a harmful object past the Environmental
Protection Agency. The slightest suspicion will have officials waving their
wand--one that can freeze the biggest of proj-ects for years. Just ask any
transportation planner. Before a road is put into place it faces a series of
hot-lamp interrogations. If something isn't right, move back to step one. If
all goes well move up to inspector No. 2 . . . and No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 are
waiting with their questions. The process has been a time nuisance for years.
In 2001, the median time to process environmental documents for major highway
projects was 4-1/2 years. During the wait, our highways have become clogged
with automotive sludge.

So President George W. Bush responded the only way he knew
how--with some force. Back on Sept. 18 he signed an executive order "to
enhance environmental stewardship and streamline the environmental review and
development of transportation infrastructure projects." The highlight of this
particular strike of the pen is the formation of a "Transportation
Infrastructure Streamlining Task Force." According to the president, this
group will monitor and assist agencies in their efforts to expedite a review of
transportation infra-structure projects and issue permits or similar actions,
as necessary; review projects, at least quarterly, on the list of priority
projects; and identify and promote policies that can effectively streamline the
process required to provide approvals for transportation infrastructure
projects, in compliance with applicable law, while maintaining safety, public
health and environmental protection.

Forming this task force will be the secretary of
agriculture, secretary of commerce, secretary of transportation (who will serve
as chairman), secretary of the interior, secretary of defense, administrator of
the Environmental Protection Agency, chairman of the Advisory Council on
Historic Preservation and the chairman of the Council of Environmental Quality.

Congress launched its operation about a week later when
House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young
(R-Alaska) introduced the "Expediting Project Delivery to Improve
Transportation and the Environmental Act." Brian Holmes, executive
director of the Maryland Highway Contractors Association, an American Road
& Transportation Builders Association affiliate, said the bill takes
important steps in clearly defining the applicability of federal historic
preservation laws in transportation planning and setting time limits for
challenging transportation plans and projects in court.

As expected, the environmentalists found refuge in the
National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Testifying before the
Subcommittee on Highway and Transit, Environmental Defense Transportation
Director Michael Replogle said the Congressional move would weaken
environmental laws created under NEPA by setting arbitrary deadlines that are
far too short to meet important goals.

"Passage of this bill will jeopardize public health,
harm efforts to preserve endangered species and threaten valuable wetlands and
communities by impairing accountability," Replogle said.

My burning question is this: What can you possibly
"catch" in 41/2 years that you can't in 2 years? If these
environmental protectors are really good at what they do shouldn't they be
efficient as well? I think it's quite clear that if an official doesn't like a
certain highway project he or she will do whatever necessary to slow
development--and this person has plenty of decelerating laws to pull and use.

But I'm afraid this new task force will be powerless. Action
taken must be "in compliance with applicable law." In other words,
the EPA is still calling the shots. And with two land-cleaning executives on
board there could be more task force squabbling than positive movement.

It might seem impossible, but we need an entirely new set of
rules, because there is just too much baggage here.

About the author: 
Bill Wilson is Editor of Roads & Bridges. He can be reached at [email protected]
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