DALLAS – President Trump’s executive order to cut the environmental review process for infrastructure projects to spur private investments in road and bridges will not protect the environment or improve public safety, the head of the American Society of Civil Engineers said.
“While a streamlined permitting process can help to address our nation's significant infrastructure needs, it must be a balanced approach that protects the health, safety and welfare of the public and the environment in which Americans live,” said ASCE president Norma Jean Mattei. "Our poor infrastructure ultimately will only be improved by a renewed federal commitment to increased investment.”
President Trump issued an executive order Aug. 15 to loosen restrictions that he said would cut the environmental review process to a maximum of two years.
Mattei said Trump’s executive order would repeal an order issued by President Obama in 2015 that requires the development of weather risk-reduction standards for federally funded projects located within a flood plain along with an action plan to lessen potential environmental threats to them.
Obama’s executive order 13690 was designed to end the costly and unsustainable cycle of rebuilding flood-damaged roads, bridges, and other infrastructure with disaster relief funds, she said.
“This pragmatic approach, which gives federal agencies the flexibility to use one of three standards for establishing the flood elevation of new infrastructure projects, ensures that taxpayer dollars are responsibly spent while also safeguarding public health,” Mattei said.
The U.S. sustained 196 weather- and climate- related events where damages exceeded $1 billion and experienced more than $260 billion in flood-related damages between 1980 and 2013, ASCE said.
“More than half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a coast and there has been continued development in flood plains, making federal floodplain risk management standards more important now than ever,” Mattei said.
The federal floodplain risk management standards are “a fiscally responsible, common-sense approach of considering and mitigating flood disaster risks for federally funded development in flood prone areas,” she said.
“It is time for Congress and the president to work together to put forth a package that increases investment that will provide substantial, long-term benefits to the public and the economy," she said.
Reducing the red tape that delays infrastructure projects is a worthy goal but the nation’s infrastructure won’t be renewed without additional federal funding, Mattei said.
“While improving the permitting process can benefit our nation, we ultimately need increased investment into projects that are a benefit to Americans and the economy,” she said. “The president remarked he believes there is still bipartisan interest on passing a large infrastructure package, though the full details of such a bill are yet to be seen.”
More funding would be available for roads and bridges from states and private partners if some of the 65 different requirements and permits needed for infrastructure projects were eliminated or revised, said Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
“We’ve identified more than two dozen policies and rules that will streamline project delivery and environmental permitting,” Chao said at last week’s executive order signing ceremony.
The Federal Transit Administration is in the process of reviewing a proposed new rule that would allow federal regulators to waive some environmental requirements if they are holding up a transit project being financed as a public-private partnership.
The new private investment procedures for public transportation projects issued by the FTA on July 30 would exempt recipients of federal funding from specific regulations and procedures that are identified as impediments to a P3 or a project with private investment.
The new procedures would help develop more effective approaches to spurring private participation and investment in project finance, development, construction, maintenance, and operations, said FTA Executive Director Matthew Welbes.
"As more public transportation project sponsors find willing and able private partners, we must ensure that federal regulations or procedures do not stifle innovation," he said.
Comments on the proposed FTA procedures are due by Sept. 29.