Environmental reviews ensure that our infrastructure is built to last with the benefit of local communities in mind.
It’s no secret, America badly needs an infrastructure upgrade. In 2021, the crumbling state of America’s infrastructure earned it a grade of C- from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Spoiler alert: it’s the highest grade our country has received in 20 years.
But as sea levels continue to rise and extreme weather events become more frequent, we must insist that our roads, bridges, and other infrastructure are engineered to be more resilient to the increasingly severe effects of climate change. If recent hurricane seasons have taught us anything, it’s that such a build-first-ask-questions-later infrastructure bill isn’t just short-sighted – it’s dangerous.
For decades Congress and the federal government starved local and state governments of badly needed money to finance infrastructure upgrades, effectively stalling projects before they even started. Rather than addressing the trillion-dollar elephant in the room and plugging the mile-wide funding gap, opponents in Congress bankrolled by corporate lobbyists have instead peddled the false claim that NEPA and other environmental regulations are responsible for otherwise unrelated project delays. Their goal is to make it easier to rubberstamp permits for dirty fossil fuel projects
Further gutting environmental review will do little to improve the state of our infrastructure. In fact, stacking additional reforms on top of one another before agencies are able to fully implement them or fully analyze their effectiveness is likely to slow down project reviews, not speed them up. Moreover, in the absence of NEPA, project sponsors would still have to comply with underlying environmental statutes, such as the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, among others. The difference is that the process would become disjointed, as project sponsors would have to apply separately to each agency asserting jurisdiction.
NEPA and the environmental review process is an asset, not an impediment, to sound decision-making. If we are serious about “Building Back Better,” we must restore and strengthen NEPA. A just transition demands it.
Fast-tracking environmental reviews following natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes isn’t just short-sighted, it’s dangerous. NEPA and other climate resilience safeguards make infrastructure stronger and empower local communities to lead reconstruction efforts
Existing environmental laws provide more than sufficient flexibility to facilitate timely post-disaster reconstruction. There are numerous administrative measures at the disposal of the executive branch designed specifically to expedite disaster response. President Trump’s delayed decision to temporarily waive the Jones Act in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Irma, which requires that goods shipped from one American port to another be transported on American-built and owned vessels, is one such example of this type of executive action. Other major legislative measures include:
- The Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which waives NEPA procedures for certain federal actions carried out within a Presidentially declared emergency or disaster area;
- The Clean Water Act, which generally exempts “emergency reconstruction of recently damaged” infrastructure from some permit programs and provides fast-track permitting for a variety of other activities;
- Numerous provisions in the Endangered Species Act enabling federal and state agencies to protect people and property in emergency situations, including an exemption from formal consultation in life-threatening emergencies.
By eliminating post-disaster environmental review of reconstruction projects, Congress all but assures that the next big hurricane to hit Florida or Puerto Rico will be equally catastrophic by creating perverse incentives for big developers to rebuild the same structures in the same manner, all subject to the same pre-disaster vulnerabilities.
I-35W Bridge Collapse in Minneapolis
When the eight-lane I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, it was contracted to be rebuilt in 437 days, but was finished in just over a year. Not a single environmental review was waived and the entire NEPA review process was completed within two months. The success of the project was so great that it prompted Rep. John Mica, then Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to appropriately name his plan to speed project delivery “the 437 Plan.”
I-580 Connector in San Francisco
The I-580 connector in San Francisco was rebuilt in 26 days after a fiery truck crash in 2007. By the end of the first day Governor Schwarzenegger, who described the bridge collapse as the “worst damage to our transportation infrastructure since the Loma Prieta Earthquake,” had declared a “State of Emergency” and procured federal support for emergency reconstruction funds. Only 26 days after the disaster, the I-580 connector was reopened in time for Memorial Day weekend traffic. Not a single environmental review was waived.
I-40 Bridge Collapse in Oklahoma
After the I-40 bridge crossing the Arkansas River in Oklahoma collapsed, the four-lane structure was rebuilt and opened to traffic just 65 days after the accident in full compliance with existing law. The review included tribal consultation as well as full consideration of discharge into wetlands, endangered and threatened species and cultural and historic resources.
Scapegoating environmental regulations also fails to acknowledge the great lengths to which federal agencies have gone to reform NEPA. If it is uncertain whether a proposed project will have significant effects on public health and the environment, federal agencies prepare a concise, preliminary evaluation of potential consequences. If the initial assessment demonstrates no significant effects, the agency issues a FONSI (“Finding of No Significant Impact”) and proceeds with the action without further environmental analysis. Preparation of a detailed Environmental Impact Survey (EIS) is only required for actions where an initial finding indicates that the action “may significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”
Because of this tiering process, over 99% of projects are cleared with minimal environmental assessment. The federal government undertakes 50,000 actions every year subject to NEPA review, but only 500 draft EISs are prepared annually. A Federal Highway Administration study found that from 1998 to 2004, no more than 3.5% percent of all proposed transportation projects required a detailed environmental study.
Attempts to paint environmental protection as a binary choice between development and protection are simply wrong. The flexibility inherent in the infrastructure design process combined with the ability to engage in meaningful mitigation efforts means that growth and smart planning are not mutually exclusive. However, it is not simply enough to charge a federal agency with the dual mandate of investment and protection. For national environmental goals to have substantive meaning, there must be both review requirements as embodied by NEPA as well as numerous avenues for legal remedy when federal agencies fail to follow the law.
The environmental review process is a powerful and effective tool for community empowerment that helps shape the project development process in ways that benefit society and nature. Undermining the National Environmental Policy Act and related laws through arbitration or other reforms that fundamentally weaken review will take us back in time. History demonstrates that gutting NEPA will allow project sponsors to build major facilities in the absence of a full consideration of the long-term impacts on people and ecological environments. Rather than weakening NEPA, Congress should provide additional funding for full-time technical staff at the state and federal levels to ensure timely completion of environmental review.
Infrastructure is the foundation that makes everything in the U.S. economy possible. Infrastructure is also essential to our national competitiveness. When done right, infrastructure investments produce broad-based prosperity for American businesses and workers, facilitating social mobility and enabling access to opportunities, people, and ideas. With trillions of dollars of taxpayer money on the line, it’s too important to get wrong.