America urgently needs to modernize its infrastructure. But before that can be done, Congress must first fix the outdated, sclerotic federal approval process. In order to be able to “dismantle better”, we must first be able to build.
Many otherwise “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects get into a bureaucratic standstill for years. Developers routinely navigate to environmental reviews that require up to 62 permits spread across 13 federal agencies.
It will be difficult enough to find a bipartisan compromise on the size and scope of an infrastructure bill. But policymakers are ignoring what is perhaps the most important problem – allowing, which has become a maze of procedural obstacles that only Congress can address.
The concrete advantages of projects that were initiated today with new funds will not be realized for 5 to 7 years. After years of project planning, planning, planning and financing, the two- to four-year approval process begins, during which orders for new windmills, solar modules, transmission lines, charging stations, construction machinery, steel, concrete and employment contracts will be placed in the coming years . Only then can the 2 to 3 years of construction begin.
The consequences are easy to see. The Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (which I headed from 2018 to 2020) analyzed 69 large projects and found that bureaucratic delays cost developers $ 100 billion. New wind and solar projects take an average of 2.3 years to obtain federal approval, 3.3 years for power transmission projects, and 4.7 years for large new road projects. On average, 20 to 30 percent of total project finance is wasted through unnecessary bureaucratic effort.
Allowing confusion between three agencies within the Home Office has hampered a $ 800 million solar project in Nevada. A planned 300-mile power line to deliver renewable electricity from Idaho to Oregon was approved in 2010. However, federal agencies cannot find a way forward with more than 30 federal and 50 state and local permits, and another 100 water crossing permits. A motorway project in the southwest was blocked for years between 19 so-called “cooperating agencies” that were negotiating at least nine important federal approval measures. Federal government infighting and bureaucratic struggles increase project prices by tens of millions.
The Inconvenient Truth: Any project that transforms dirt, encounters habitat or changes landscape, creates inevitable interactions with nature, and triggers reviews under hundreds of infrastructure permit laws and regulations. This legal maze is known for redundancy and overlapping agency requirements, some of which are over 100 years old.
Despite the cross-party desire to solve these existential problems, the pressure from interest groups on both sides and the political inclination to avoid risks continue the status quo and cause the legislature to look for superficial solutions.
The key to building a future consensus is to prove that better coordination and efficiency can help protect the environment, not shortcuts to the process. To achieve this balance, Congress must untangle the web of overlapping laws that cannot meet the infrastructure needs of America in the 21st century.
Congress can start small by creating temporary initiatives to test new strategies on the ground under conditions that are ideal for compromise. The first step is to create a seven year accelerated approval pilot program for a discreet list of the most critical (and least controversial) projects.
It won't be difficult to make a list of projects to prioritize. Take the dozen of $ 70 billion worth of offshore wind projects waiting to begin their two- to three-year review. Add 22 power transmission lines that could increase wind and solar power in the US by 50 percent but are struggling to get started. Large solar projects that can be implemented on a supply scale could also be prioritized.
Granting this essential but temporary new authority to the Biden Harris administration and the next White House will create a “safe space” for experimentation with innovative reforms and expedited permits. The results can be reviewed by Congress and examined for feasibility and then translated into more sustainable reforms in all sectors in future relationships.
We recognize the flaws of past reform initiatives, confront the exaggeration on our political flanks, and work together to advance a pilot program for regulatory reform. We can protect our natural resources while finding a path to new infrastructure advances that protect communities, create jobs and bring American industries to life.
Alex Herrgott is the founder and president of the Permitting Institute, a non-partisan association that accelerates investments in America's aging infrastructure while preserving our environmental, cultural and historical treasures. He was executive director of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council and assistant director of infrastructure at the White House Environmental Quality Council.