Last week the Regional Plan Association of New York (RPA) presented its report, Getting Infrastructure Going: Expediting the Environmental Review Process, at a panel discussion at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC). BPC and RPA were joined, in hosting this event, by the Eno Center for Transportation (Eno). The panel of respondents to the RPA report at this event included former federal and state transportation officials and experts on this subject. The timing was fortuitous, as Congress had just passed the conference committee report on the surface transportation authorization legislation, and “environmental streamlining” had proved to be one of the most controversial and talked-about issues in the Senate-House conference.
The changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that were contained in the final bill – including the exclusion of certain projects from NEPA requirements and the establishment of deadlines for action under the act – have been hailed by proponents, as major reforms that will reduce red tape and bureaucracy, dramatically speed-up the delivery of projects, and save billions of federal dollars. Conversely, these changes to NEPA have been criticized by opponents, as a serious diminishing of environmental protections applicable to transportation projects. The truth, as the BPC event explored, is almost certainly more nuanced and complicated.
There was agreement among most of the panelists that the issues that have arisen over NEPA in the four decades since its enactment have more to do with the processes and practices that have arisen around the law than with the words and the requirements of the act itself. Often, there are reasons other than NEPA requirements and the preparation of an environmental impact statements (EIS), pursuant to its provisions, that delay the delivery of a project, such as the shortage of staff in planning or environmental agencies, the unavailability of adequate funds for the project, or community opposition to the project that lead to its being given a lower priority in state or metropolitan transportation investment programs.
As the RPA report noted, “It is essential that the environmental review process not be used as a process by which to solve intractable or fundamental conflicts among project stakeholders.” At the BPC event, all were agreed that the resolution of stakeholder and community conflicts and the building of a strong consensus for a transportation investment, as early in the planning and environmental process as possible, are the most important “reforms” to be achieved, in expediting the delivery of projects, no matter the scope and character of any statutory changes to NEPA that Congress might enact.