Transportation Report: Rebuilding of I-35W bridge shows how to cut red tape on projects nationwide

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leaders are in the process of writing the next multi-year authorization of the nation’s surface transportation programs. This legislation will determine how we will invest in America’s infrastructure for the better part of the next decade.

The condition of our nation’s infrastructure continues to decline, and every dollar we invest in improvements must count.

Because of bureaucratic delays, many important projects do not break ground for several years, tying up limited federal resources while project sponsors navigate the complicated maze that is the federal approval process. These delays in transportation improvements have real costs for Americans, such as the thousands of hours lost while stuck in traffic and the lives lost in crashes that could have been avoided.

In order to ensure that we get the maximum value from our investments, one of the primary goals of the transportation bill should be to cut red tape and shorten the time it takes to move critical infrastructure projects forward.

The August 2007 I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota was tragic. While the accident was a result of design error and not the age or condition of the bridge, the incident nevertheless highlighted the need for significant and sound investments in our infrastructure.

Had the reconstruction of this important transportation link followed the normal process for similar projects, it would have taken seven to eight years to be completed.  Tom Skancke of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission testified before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 2008 that if you “add one federal dollar to a project, it adds 14 years to the delivery time.”  This is simply unnecessary and unacceptable.

Looking at the Minnesota bridge incident, we have an example of a major infrastructure project undertaken without all the bureaucracy. The new replacement bridge was contracted to be completed in just 437 days. The project, completed essentially on-budget, actually finished three months ahead of schedule and less than one year after construction began.

We must consider the Minnesota project to be the model for an initiative to expedite construction of other infrastructure projects around the United States.

I call this initiative the Mica 437-Day Plan.

Countless other transportation and infrastructure projects can be sped up without adversely affecting the environment. Expediting projects can have a positive impact on our quality of life, and actually reduce the negative impact that inefficiencies of existing infrastructure may have on the environment.

Every dollar and every gallon of gasoline Americans waste because of congestion results in increased vehicle emissions. Annually, we lose $78 billion and almost 3 billion gallons of gas in traffic delays. Drivers in 28 U.S. metropolitan areas experience 40 or more hours of delay per year due to congestion. Streamlining project delivery can reduce these costs to the environment and the economy.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and I hope to address this pivotal policy issue through the transportation reauthorization legislation. It is our intention to cut the project process at least in half.

Cutting red tape and the inordinate amount of time it takes to get shovels into the ground to build projects will save money. These savings can be invested in other critical projects. Instead of throwing money into a bureaucratic black hole, we can invest more in our crumbling infrastructure and sooner realize the benefits of a safer, more efficient transportation system.

The need to eliminate these wasteful delays became even clearer when Congress was considering a stimulus package earlier this year. Job creation was the essential element of the stimulus, and investments in infrastructure create good jobs. Estimates vary, but approximately 30,000 jobs are created or sustained for every $1 billion that we spend on improving our infrastructure.

Of the $787 billion approved in the stimulus, only 6 percent was dedicated to infrastructure. According to the Congressional Budget Office, a larger investment in the nation’s highways, transit systems, airports, rail systems, ports and waterways could not be supported because too many potential job-creating projects are tied up in the lengthy governmental approval process.

Despite the nation’s overwhelming need for jobs and infrastructure improvements, numerous projects that could have made an immediate impact on the economy and in people’s lives are sitting on the shelf, mired in red tape.

In order to create jobs and cut government waste, the project process must be streamlined, lengthy review processes must be conducted concurrently rather than consecutively, and we must stop frittering away our resources with needless delays.

While congestion continues to be a drag on the American economy, funding for infrastructure becomes more precious every day. The gas tax, as the mechanism for funding transportation improvements, is obsolete. In order to stay solvent, the Highway Trust Fund will soon need a second infusion of funds in under a year’s time.

We cannot afford to maintain the status quo. Transportation typically doesn’t receive the level of media attention it did when the I-35W bridge collapsed, but many projects across the nation are as critical to the economy, safety and efficiency as the replacement bridge that was completed in under 437 days. We should not be spending a decade on projects that can be completed, without trampling over the environment, in a year or two.

As part of a new national transportation strategy, the pending transportation law must incorporate a 437-Day Plan that will expedite the delivery of projects to save time and money, and build the United States’s infrastructure.

Mica is ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.