No, it doesn’t take 10 years to get approval to build 'a simple road’

No, it doesn’t take 10 years to get approval to build 'a simple road’
© Getty

There he goes again.

President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMeet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time Avenatti denies domestic violence allegations: 'I have never struck a woman' Trump names handbag designer as ambassador to South Africa MORE claimed – erroneously – in his State of the Union address that it takes 10 years to build “a simple road.” That’s a canard in his brazen effort to short-circuit environmental reviews in his infrastructure plan, to be unveiled any day now.

With that initial claim so far from the truth, lawmakers should toss that entire idea from the nearest bridge.

The mythical 10-year figure appears to come from a report called “Two Years Not Ten Years” by the anti-regulatory group Common Good. Despite putting the 10 years claim in his 2015 report’s title, it doesn’t supply any data that actually shows project reviews can take a decade, instead claiming “ample anecdotal evidence” to support his claim. But — spoiler — there is no such evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, as the Congressional Research Service confirmed.

After all, 96 percent of federal highway projects have only minimal or no environmental review before they proceed; of those complex projects requiring the full analysis, the average time for a permit is 4.7 years, according to the White House’s own infrastructure adviser.

Even that’s overblown. The Trump administration’s own data shows that reviews are getting done much more quickly. According to Department of Transportation data, in the 13 years through 2011, it took on average 5.6 years to complete a major highway project review. Since 2012, it has averaged 3.6 years.

Repeated investigations by government watchdogs show that funding, not environmental reviews, is the cause of delay. A witness from the Congressional Research Service told a congressional panel that a study of 40 projects showed that 39 were slowed by a lack of federal funding.

Also, speed isn’t everything.

Environmental reviews are important undertakings. Before the federal government dams a river or OKs offshore drilling, it takes a look at the risks of the project and gives local residents a chance to weigh-in and comment on an action that will affect their local environment and economy. That way, before the oil company builds a pipeline through your backyard, you get a chance to debate the route or question the company’s safety precautions. Environmental concerns don’t trump other factors, but the process ensures that they are taken into account.

The National Environmental Policy Act was bipartisan achievement, pushed by Democrats John DingellJohn DingellThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump, Stormy Daniels trade fire on Twitter | Three weeks to midterms | Pompeo meets Saudi king Former Rep. Dingell released from hospital Former Rep. John Dingell returns to Twitter after heart attack MORE and Senator Scoop Jackson and signed into law by President Nixon in 1970. The law was prompted in part by concerns from communities where residents felt their views had been ignored in setting routes for the interstate highway system. Thanks to NEPA, tens of thousands of Americans have participated in important federal decisions and many projects have been made better because of it, as my colleagues have shown. And, yes, some wasteful project proposals were killed before they became boondoggles.

And there is one other thing off kilter with the president’s critique.

If the White House wants to speed up the reviews even more, there’s already a process for it to do so. In 2015, an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress passed the Fixing America Surface Transportation Act (The FAST Act), which was championed by Senator Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe case for bipartisan solutions GOP lawmakers condemn attempted attacks on Democrats Trump takes steps to punish Saudi Arabia MORE (R-Ohio( and signed into law by President Obama. Title 41 of that bill mandated that a new apparatus under the Office of Management and Budget strive for faster reviews. That body is supposed to set deadlines, push the resolution of interagency disputes, and allocate funding and personnel to help speed-up reviews.

But Trump’s first executive order on infrastructure contradicted the authorities and responsibilities already set up by the FAST-41 bill, causing more delay instead of speeding things up. The president still hasn’t even appointed someone to head that infrastructure body, and its work has languished under this administration. If the president wants faster reviews, that’s the place to start.

We can use NEPA and the permitting process to help build a modern infrastructure system that takes into account the needs of the 21st century: It’s resilient, energy efficient, and accounts for the impacts of a changing climate.  We can do this smarter and better by using — not crippling — the environmental review process.

Scott Slesinger is the legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.