In a recent report, the Regional Plan Association suggests the expedited environmental review process proposed for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement should become the standard nationally, saying “misguided” implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) contributes to lengthy delays in completing big projects.
Adopted in 1970, NEPA created the modern-day practice of environmental impact statements. 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, according to Regional Plan Association (RPA) estimates.
RPA promotes regional development in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, where it is based in Manhattan. The report is only the latest voice in the Northeast recognizing the need to balance environmental delays with the costs of excessive delays in development projects. In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is pressing the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to speed its reviews of proposed projects, as well as the state Department of Transportation. And this past June, Connecticut enacted a new law allowing the state to authorize projects that condense the design and construction elements of a project into a single bid.
Uncertainty in the permitting process discourages private investors and erodes public confidence in the government’s ability to use infrastructure funding wisely, RPA points out, providing examples of how streamlined processes contribute to speedier projects and savings. Notable among these was the replacement for the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis, with the new bridge opening in 2008, less than 14 months after the disaster, due in large part to an efficient NEPA process.
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, RPA stated, adding that it has found that the root cause of delays lies in outmoded and inefficient practices and not in the law itself.
And of course, a common recourse is to sue the agency that led the NEPA process. RPA said the threat of environmental lawsuits motivates federal agencies to take time-consuming steps or redesign projects to avoid them, contributing to project delivery delays.
“Proposals for environmental streamlining originating in Congress, often overlook opportunities to overhaul policies and procedures within the current legal framework for environmental review,” said Petra Todorovich, director of RPA’s America 2050 program and a co-author of the report, in a written statement. “Contrary to current thinking, our study found that more federal involvement, not less, tends to speed up environmental reviews of major projects.”
In addition to obtaining broad agreement on project goals at the outset, RPA recommends:
• prioritizing federal leadership on major job-generating projects while reducing federal involvement in minor projects;
• increasing accountability through clear deadlines and public transparency; and
• adopting digital transmission of environmental documents.
The report arrived on the eve of Connecticut disbursing $8.6 million to 20 regional planning and economic development organizations across the state, intended to help them break out of their silos and coordinate functions and services on a regional basis.
“Making local government more efficient will help lower costs and save property tax dollars,” Malloy said in a statement. “These grants are an investment in less-expensive government – government absolutely must do more with less. Using improved technology to reduce costs and taking a collaborative approach to providing local services meets the needs of residents in a smarter way.”
The South Western Regional Planning Agency in Stamford secured the largest grant at nearly $2.2 million, while the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council received $1.4 million.
Much of the funding is for projects related to geospatial information systems (GIS), standardized mapping systems designed to improve planning and disaster response between state, regional and municipal users.
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