Agencies slash red tape to speed up recovery projects from Hurricane Sandy

The Obama administration is expediting efforts to finalize new rules to speed repairs to roads, bridges and other infrastructure following natural disasters, allowing some projects to skip long environmental reviews. 

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The rule stems from transportation legislation enacted last year, but it is being expedited to help New York, New Jersey and other states rebound from Hurricane Sandy. It is set to take effect Tuesday, when it will be published in the Federal Register. 

Drawn up by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the rule exempts certain projects from lengthy environmental reviews if they stem from events that triggered state or federal emergency declarations. 

The agencies acknowledged that the rule raises concerns about adverse environmental impacts, but said the toll of the newly excluded projects is usually insignificant. 

“The damage to the facility must have been caused by a natural disaster or a catastrophic failure from an external cause,” according to the notice to be published Tuesday.

Projects afforded “categorical exclusions” from the usual red tape must be completed at the same site where damage occurred and be kept to the same capacity, dimensions and design of the original piece of infrastructure. 

Work on the project must start within two years of the date of the emergency declaration.

Normally, rules are published 30 days before they take effect. In this case, transportation officials concluded they had good cause to move more quickly to unlock funding for transit systems and equipment damaged by Sandy. The storm caused far-reaching damage across mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states when it hit land last October.

Transit operations in New Jersey and New York serve roughly 40 percent of all transit riders in the country. Officials concluded that expediting the rule would “expand the FTA’s ability to support much needed Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts and process these new funding requests in an expeditious manner, while still ensuring that the environment is protected.”

Agencies have determined that “good cause” exists for immediate implementation of the rule because it is expected to apply in many cases that address the urgent need to fund repairs of transit systems facilities and equipment damaged by Hurricane Sandy.