Infrastructure package must include permitting reform
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While pundits debate the merits of various infrastructure proposals, the very real problem of permitting reform has been overlooked. Without appropriate reform, any infrastructure proposal will not get us where we need to be in order to fix these enormous problems. Almost four in 10 of our country’s bridges are at least 50 years old. More than 50,000 of those bridges were structurally deficient in 2016. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States—and in some places, like in Alaska, there are entire communities that don’t even have access to tap water and a flushed toilet. Much of our energy grid is at full capacity, one out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition, our ports need to be modernized and deepened, and many of our schools are crumbling.

We can do much better for our citizens, and we believe that the Trump administration’s focus on infrastructure presents our nation with significant bipartisan opportunities. A key to the success of any infrastructure package has to involve a desperately needed reform of our country’s broken public-works and environmental approval process – a process that adds years and costs to projects – sometimes resulting in the death of those projects altogether.

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While most of us can agree that a thorough permitting process is important and necessary for the health and safety of our citizens, for too long, the regulatory and permitting process has been abused by some groups and even by federal agencies to obstruct and delay critically needed projects. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed in 1970. The act mandates environmental impact statements (EISs) be conducted on projects that have significant impact on the environment. EISs were meant to increase public input and transparency for infrastructure developments. Thirty years ago, an EIS was expected to take no more than 12 months to complete, and usually only consisted of a few hundred pages. That process now takes four to six years, can cost millions of dollars and often involves thousands of pages, resulting in an opaque process accessible only to lawyers and bureaucrats. Public input and transparency are certainly not served by this broken process.

All of this is even before the substantive permitting process begins, when local governments and private businesses then have to navigate reams of federal regulations.

Let us provide some real examples of how the process can delay projects. After 14 years, the expansion of Gross Reservoir in Colorado is still waiting on final federal approvals. It took almost 20 years to permit the Kensington gold mine in Alaska. It took four years to construct a new runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but it took 15 years to get the pre-build permits. TransCanada applied for permits in 2008 to build the Keystone XL pipeline. The project only received approval under President TrumpDonald John TrumpSasse: Trump shouldn't dignify Putin with Helsinki summit Top LGBT group projects message onto Presidential Palace in Helsinki ahead of Trump-Putin summit Hillary Clinton to Trump ahead of Putin summit: 'Do you know which team you play for?' MORE’s administration in 2017.

The list goes on. Every day spent waiting for a permit to be approved is a day of lost wages for our hard American workers—wages that could be spent on putting food on their families’ tables, roofs over their heads, putting their children through college, and saving for retirement. Every day that we spend needlessly fighting over approvals to be able to fix our roads, our bridges, and a water system, is another day in which economic growth opportunities are missed and our nation’s crumbling infrastructure gets worse.

So what’s to be done? A bill that Sen. Sullivan introduced, the Rebuild America Now Act, provides a detailed and sound blueprint for fixing the problem.

The bill will provide realistic deadlines for NEPA reviews, expands exclusion of those reviews for emergency and vital infrastructure projects—like the rebuilding currently underway in areas hit by hurricanes, as well as in communities in California that have been decimated by wildfires. Additionally, the bill simplifies NEPA documents and limits needless litigation intended only to delay projects, and has a specific section on streamlining the application of much needed energy projects that power our country. 

One of the many lessons we learned from the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009 is that spending federal money on projects without a sound and streamlined permitting process won’t provide jobs and benefits in the short term and will end up wasting tax payer money in the long run. There was a “shovel ready” requirement to receive some of the funds, but as President Obama said in 2011, "Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected." As a result, money was often inefficiently spent on projects that weren’t necessary or have since been abandoned and or mired in controversy.

Fixing our infrastructure in the most effective, efficient way is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s an issue that effects all Americans—particularly the American worker. Americans were proud to build the Pentagon in 16 months, the Hoover Dam in five years, and the 1,500-mile Alaska-Canadian Highway in only eight months.

America used to be known as a country that built great structures on time and on budget. If real federal permitting reform is part of a broad-based infrastructure initiative, we can be that country again.

Sullivan is the junior senator from Alaska and Terry O’Sullivan is president of the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA).