Obama Administration Takes New Steps to Hasten Permitting of Transportation Projects

AASHTO Journal, 25 September 2015

Several arms of the Obama administration including the Department of Transportation said they will take new steps starting in October “to accelerate the nation’s critical infrastructure projects” such as bridges or highways.

The efforts implement some recommendations from a 2014 administration plan to speed federal permitting so major projects move faster through planning phases to actual construction. They include issuing new guidance on the metrics involved to all federal agencies and expanding use of an online “permitting dashboard” tracking tool that lets the public know the pace of approvals.

Another step in this process is the first rewrite in nearly 30 years of a permanent federal guide – known as the “Red Book” – for coordinating agencies’ environmental reviews of transportation projects. That effort is being spearheaded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Sept. 22 announcement said the USDOT was taking the new actions along with the White House Office of Management and Budget and Council on Environmental Quality.

“To deliver infrastructure projects that achieve real impacts for the American people, we need to act with urgency and recognize that every day counts,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Today’s actions help us get there. We are pushing ourselves to improve efficiency, coordination, and collaboration, so that federal permitting becomes a sprint rather than a relay race.”

It follows years in which President Obama ordered faster federal approvals, through such actions as concurrent rather than sequential agency reviews, for dozens of specified big-ticket projects including one to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York. “Federal agencies previously expedited the review and permitting of over 50 major infrastructure projects, including bridges, transit, railways, waterways, roads and renewable energy projects,” the announcement said.

It also comes after years of growing pressure in Congress to cut time-wasting red tape, as lawmakers wrote project acceleration provisions into the 2012 highway and transit bill and 2014’s water projects legislation.

Many state governors and departments of transportation CEOs have called on Congress to enact further measures to let states build projects faster and at less cost. Some have also negotiated customized “programmatic agreements” with the Federal Highway Administration or other federal agencies to give state DOTs more clarity and freedom of action in developing their construction projects.

The administration said: “Today’s announcement takes major steps to turn best practices into common practices, building on a series of successful efforts over the past several years to modernize the infrastructure permitting process and increase investment in U.S. infrastructure.”


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