Big infrastructure projects take years or even decades to complete. Too often, that's because planning work gets bogged down in protracted environmental reviews. But new research by Regional Plan Association has identified ways environmental analysis could be completed more quickly, without sacrificing environmental protections.
In "Getting Infrastructure Going: Expediting the Environmental Review Process," RPA finds that the National Environmental Policy Act adopted in 1970 still provides a strong regulatory framework for protecting the environment. But misguided implementation of the law contributes to lengthy delays in delivering big infrastructure projects.
Stretching out projects far longer than initially projected drives up costs and delays improvements to vital infrastructure, from repair of aging roads and bridges to construction of new rail lines to the expansion of key shipping facilities. As projects take longer to complete, their costs rise. The uncertainty discourages private investors and erodes public confidence in government's ability to use infrastructure funding wisely.
In the more than 40 years since NEPA's adoption, the practice of carrying out environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects has significantly lengthened project delivery times. For example, in 2011, the average time it took to complete an environmental impact statement on a highway project was more than eight years, compared with two years in the 1970s.
The study describes how inconsistent policies among myriad government agencies contribute to delays. Some environmental reviews are longer and more complex than necessary, in part as a defense against the risk of future litigation. An absence of consensus from the outset over the nature or scope of projects also leads to logjams, as stakeholders seek to modify project goals during the environmental review process.
To help government agencies, NEPA practitioners and others avoid unnecessary slowdowns in infrastructure work, RPA worked with more than a dozen legal experts and environmental practitioners from the public and private sector to develop guidelines for future projects. Among the recommendations:
- Establishing broad agreement on project goals at the outset;
- Prioritize federal leadership on major job-generating projects while reducing federal involvement in minor projects;
- Increase accountability through clear deadlines and public transparency;
- Adopt digital transmission of environmental documents.
To demonstrate the feasibility of following these recommendations, the report also presents three case studies in which environmental reviews of major infrastructure projects were successfully expedited.
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