Many roads, bridges, sewers, pipelines, and other infrastructure need repair. New facilities should also be built where economic and social conditions warrant. Yet even where money is not an obstacle, the reviews that are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) can be a significant source of delay. The average time to complete a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), for example, was 5.1 years in 2016. Only 16% of them were completed in two years or less.
Lengthy reviews introduce uncertainty, add to the costs, and threaten the viability of infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, existing facilities continue to deteriorate as proposed upgrades or replacements wind their way through federal and state regulatory bodies. The problem is long-standing, and Congress has taken a number of steps over the last several years to streamline the process.
This paper assesses their effectiveness and proposes some additional changes, including:
- Updating rules and procedures at the agency level to exempt additional infrastructure projects from lengthy and complex review requirements.
- Expanding eligibility and giving agencies more flexibility to make use of NEPA’s “categorical exclusion” provisions.
- Assigning more environmental review duties to states. For more than a decade, a program called NEPA Assignment has allowed states to take the lead on shepherding certain highway and transit projects through environmental review. The states that have done so report reduced time required to complete environmental reviews. More states should be encouraged to participate. The federal government should expand the number of projects and actions that are eligible under existing authority, and Congress should expand the program to cover more kinds of infrastructure.
With the implementation of these recommendations, federal agency resources would be freed to deal with the complex projects that require more comprehensive review, reducing the time for projects that pass muster to begin.
Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on twitter @CharlesHHughes.