Trump's infrastructure plan builds barriers to public engagement

Trump's infrastructure plan builds barriers to public engagement
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE’s new infrastructure plan aims to fast-track federal projects. This will happen by streamlining the environmental review and permitting process, by way of exemptions, deadlines, and reforms to some of the most important environmental laws in our country, including the Clean Water and Clean Air acts.

One law, in particular, is in the crosshairs — the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that passed Congress in 1969 with a bipartisan majority and was signed into law by President Nixon in 1970.

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Generally considered the first major environmental law in the U.S, NEPA requires federal agencies to evaluate the environmental impacts of proposed projects, such as bridges, dams, highways, and power plants, prior to making decisions.

 

The NEPA process relies upon two instruments: environmental assessments (EAs) and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) — that formalize evaluation and require explicit consideration of alternative actions.

The NEPA process also mandates that the public be given opportunity to review and comment on projects that may have significant environmental consequences.

Yet, NEPA now stands to be gutted. Proposed changes include (1) facilitating exemptions of projects from federal review through categorical exclusions, (2) establishing shorter timelines that would fast-track reviews, and (3) slashing the statute of limitation for challenging permitting decisions from 6 years to 150 days.

Not only do these changes have potentially enormous consequences for the environment and human health, but they fundamentally erode a system of democracy, transparency, and public participation in federal decisions.

At its core, NEPA ensures that citizens and communities have a voice in federal activities. Communities are empowered to identify potential risks associated with projects, provide input on strategies to avoid or mitigate those risks, and demand government accountability.

Indeed, the NEPA process was partly born out of dissatisfaction with the limited opportunity for public comment during the development of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.

NEPA gave voice to those who are marginalized or voiceless, such as low-income communities and communities of color. It also requires that federal agencies explicitly consider environmental justice because underserved communities are disproportionately impacted by poor decisions and unhealthy environments.

These communities will be among those most disadvantaged by the proposed changes in the infrastructure plan.

Why does the infrastructure plan aim to change NEPA? The White House’s rationale is that we must eliminate “barriers that prevent efficient development and management of infrastructure projects” and streamline permitting to “simplify the approval process."

But it turns out that NEPA is not the cause of most project delays. Instead, delays usually stem from project-specific or local/state issues or project funding.

We all stand to lose if NEPA restricts the opportunity for public input and dampens the voice of citizens. Time and again we see how public comment leads to better decisions that save money, improve efficiency, identify design problems, and avoid adverse outcomes for human health and the environment.

Success stories include examples like the Choctaw Point Shipping Terminal in Alabama, for which design changes improved operational efficiency and created more than 120,000 jobs, as well as the Monroe Bypass in North Carolina, for which modifications saved nearly $700 million of taxpayer dollars.

One of the most curious aspects of the infrastructure plan is its juxtaposition with the recent release of the White House’s proposed federal budget for 2019.

The preamble of the budget identifies several “root causes” of the nation’s most serious challenges, one of which is that, “the public lacks sufficient opportunities to give feedback on federal programs and services, making it harder to identify weaknesses and make improvements.”

In this way, the elements of the infrastructure plan that curtail public input will only exacerbate the problem articulated in the 2019 federal budget.

When promoting his infrastructure plan, President Trump remarked, “Washington will no longer be a roadblock to progress. Washington will now be your partner.” But if he is restricting the public voice, it begs the question — partner to whom?

Amanda Rodewald is the Garvin professor and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, and a faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. She is also a Public Voices fellow.