Mitch Daniels Decries America’s Inefficient Infrastructure Approval Process, Cites Philip Howard

On Thursday, June 25, Mitch Daniels, the former Governor of Indiana and current President of Purdue University, provided testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance on how best to improve America’s decaying infrastructure. Before discussing financing—and the value of public-private partnerships in particular—Mr. Daniels, echoing Common Good’s arguments, decried America’s inefficient infrastructure approval process. Towards the end of his written comments on this issue, he cites Philip Howard’s call for “clear lines of authority” in the approval process. An excerpt:

While the financing of infrastructure is of vital national interest and the jurisdiction of this committee, upgrading our nation’s roads, ports and bridges will depend at least equally on a national agreement to reexamine the system that makes “shovel ready projects” a myth. No conversation about infrastructure would be complete without acknowledging that the permitting process is costly and broken.

At the center of the need for reform is the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires all federal agencies to generate detailed assessments of the environmental impact of “major federal actions.” The implementation of NEPA has evolved over time, becoming more burdensome with every decade. According to one observer, in the 1970s a final EIS was typically 22 pages long. Today, an EIS commonly exceeds a thousand pages, despite regulations directing that statements should normally be less than 150 or 300 pages, depending on the complexity of the assessment.

Similarly, forty years ago it took the Federal Highway Administration two years on average to complete an EIS. Today, it typically takes 7 years. Wasting time and money has become the standard operating procedure.

This contrasts with much of the developed, environmentally conscious world. In Canada, regulations stipulate that after a 20-day public comment period, that nation’s environmental assessment agency has 25 days to determine whether an environmental assessment is needed. If one is necessary, the agency has 1-2 years to complete the assessment. Likewise, European Union regulations allow for a maximum of three and a half years for cross-national energy infrastructure projects.

Our inability to meet such standards in this country stymies growth and is costly to the environment. How many gallons of gasoline are wasted as Americans sit idly on congested roads? How many pollutants are emitted while projects that improve energy efficiency are mired in red tape? In my state, we reduced collective emissions by thousands of tons per year by clearing out a backlog of some 450 expired air and water permits. In some cases, these had been pending for more than 20 years, even though new permits invariably require lower limits and tighter restrictions than the expired version. Moving fast in government is one of the most pro-environment things you can do. As much as anyone, the most devout of environmentalists need efficient permitting and economic growth if they are to realize their goals and the purpose of NEPA.

The overarching problem is a culture where the burden of proof is always on the pro-growth side, which has to prove that creating a new job won’t hurt the environment, in even some infinitesimal way, interfere with some previously unheard of species, or disrupt some ground of alleged, often highly debatable historical value. Our national interests would be better served if we switched the presumption so that requests for more study beyond a reasonable review would need to prove that the additional delays wouldn’t unnecessarily cost jobs and hinder growth. Today’s regulatory regime can fairly be described as cruel in the damage it inflicts on unemployed and underemployed Americans.

As the chair of Common Good, Philip K. Howard has stated, “Red tape is not the same as good government...Congress must create clear lines of authority to make decisions....[A]n environmental official should have responsibility to draw lines on how much review is sufficient. Similarly, one agency should have overriding permitting authority, balancing the concerns of other agencies and departments.”

You can read his full written testimony here.