The solution for rural infrastructure
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This week is National Infrastructure Week, but don’t expect to see any parades or celebrations of America’s infrastructure system this year. The truth is, we’re lagging far behind where we should be, and we must do something about it. Rural America faces many unique infrastructure challenges. Dilapidated roads, crumbling bridges and battered levees and dams litter the country from coast to coast, and Northern California is no exception.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the United States “infrastructure gap,” which refers to the amount of money required to meet our nation’s infrastructure needs, is estimated to be above $2 trillion. This gap is even more exaggerated in rural areas, like Northern California, where funding is much more difficult to come by.

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Urban areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco will always be able to find additional funding from a variety of sources. In Modoc or Siskiyou County, where 50,000 people live in an area the size of Massachusetts, it’s not enough to simply pump more money into the system. We also need to stretch every dollar as far as possible.

California has some of the strictest environmental regulations in the country – far stricter than federal laws, in fact. While I’ve questioned the necessity for many of these laws, that’s a conversation for another day. In order to receive authorization to proceed with a project, counties must jump through numerous, duplicative regulatory hoops from multiple agencies on both the federal and state level. That makes no sense.

Let’s put it this way – if California requires you to run at least 70 yards, and the federal government requires you to run at least 50 yards, wouldn’t it make the most sense to run just the 70 yards and call it a day? Under our current process, we’re running 120 yards, wasting time and money with no benefit to the environment.

Smaller, rural counties don’t have the financial flexibility to navigate the maze of federal bureaucracies and red tape. Local agencies have also proven to be far more efficient with these projects, saving both time and money compared to federal estimates.

Take the example of the Feather River West Levee Project in my district. The original total cost was estimated to be $689 million – $255 million from the federal government and $434 million from the state. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed our local agency, the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency, to complete the project mostly on their own, and the savings were massive. The project is set to be completed six years ahead of schedule for a total cost of only $376 million – nearly half the price. Despite the local government taking on a higher percentage of the total cost, they still saved $107 million, while the federal government saved $206 million. These results speak for themselves.

There are solutions we can and should pursue. In 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which passed the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, gave states more authority to conduct their own environmental reviews for highway and transit projects. The president’s own infrastructure proposal seeks to broaden this same authority for all infrastructure projects. Not only would this significantly speed up the permitting process, but it entrusts states to make decisions that are in their own best interests.

Earlier this year, the president also published a Memorandum of Understanding that would implement what’s called the “One Federal Decision” policy. This means instead of requiring each relevant agency to publish their own statements and reviews, it would identify one lead agency to coordinate the project and consolidate these steps. It’s about time. This is a common sense initiative that gives our rural counties a map for the labyrinth of federal regulations.

These are basic, bipartisan reforms that we need to make in order to truly modernize America’s infrastructure. For rural communities across America, streamlining this overcomplicated permitting process can stretch our dollars further, and it can help bring our infrastructure up to date in a timely manner that meets the expectations of the people.

LaMalfa represents California’s 1st District and is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.