ACEC is the largest trade organization of its kind, representing approximately 5,000 consulting engineering firms from across the country, employing some 200,000 people. Our members are consultants to public and private entities, and furnish professional services in planning, engineering, maintenance, and operation of our nation's transportation systems.
It has been said, Mr. Chairman, that the wealth of our nation did not build our transportation system, but rather, our transportation system created the wealth of our country. Consulting engineers understand and appreciate this basic relationship between infrastructure and industry. We have been involved with planning, designing, constructing, maintaining, and enhancing these infrastructure projects. We also planned and designed the projects that accompanied the massive economic development triggered by the resulting arteries of commerce and prosperity.
For years, our nation's transportation system has been the envy of leaders and businesses around the world. However, as each year passes in which we fail to maintain our infrastructure we are, in effect, withdrawing from our long-term investment and leaving a deficient transportation system for the next generation. In an era of scarce Federal resources to fund transportation projects, we simply must do better with the funding we have if our nation is to continue to prosper and grow in the 21st Century.
Last year, ACEC was asked and accepted your challenge to look at how we can accelerate the delivery of transportation projects. We believe we can improve the delivery of transportation projects at a reduced costs to the taxpayer while, at the same time, enhancing public input, achieving the environmental goals set forth under the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws, and improving quality. We accepted this challenge Mr. Chairman and I am pleased to present to you and the Members of this distinguished Committee, ACEC's vision for ISTEA II.
ACEC's report is divided into four section: Funding for the Future, Partnerships for Quality, Accelerating Project Delivery, and Quality Through Competition. I will limit my remarks to the recommendations contained in the Accelerating Project Delivery section of the report since these proposals focus directly on environment and planning issues. I encourage you to read the entire document which contains additional recommendations and I will be pleased to answer any questions that you may have on the other sections of the report. I believe we can all agree that it is taking too long to deliver badly needed transportation projects to the American public. On average, it takes 10 years to plan, design and construct a major transportation project. We believe this time can be reduced by 30%.
Currently, there are delays in issuing permits after environmental documents have been certified. There are unnecessary, duplicative and burdensome regulations that impact the day-to-day work. Finally, there are numerous levels of government that are enmeshed in an institutional and organizational web where accountability is frequently unclear and where resources do not necessarily follow responsibilities. Mr. Chairman, we have included examples of these with our testimony but I suspect that you may have some of your own examples of projects that go on for years at tremendous cost to the taxpayer.
To improve the planning component of project delivery we propose to:
Establish inter-agency environmental units in each state
In order to avoid delays associated with this bureaucratic quagmire, ACEC recommends that inter-agency environmental units be established in each state empowered to directly and expeditiously address environmental issues. These environmental units, that would be funded by transportation revenues and housed near Federal and state DOT offices, would focus their resources to issue a single approval. In addition, incentives should be provided for the state agency to accomplish its work on time, on budget, and according to standards.
Through a series of cooperative interagency agreements between state and federal environmental agencies, this unit would be empowered to administer, review and approve environmental documents. Specific situations may require that the unit would directly contact a source agency to resolve a particular issue. Acting as a surrogate staff of the agency, the environmental unit manager would know the detailed local situation, who to contact in the federal agency, and be able to expeditiously coordinate follow-up activities. We believe this management realignment alone could save a significant amount of the time required to prepare an environmental document.
Our proposal is not intended to change the goals set forth in the National Environmental Policy Act or other related environmental laws. We wholeheartedly support a strong environment. Our goal is to address the process issues which end up adding substantial time and cost to the transportation projects.
Enhance Public Involvement
The current delays encountered in the existing stop-and-start process associated with public involvement are further exacerbated by the NEPA process. Milestone documents are required to be published and circulated with one - or two - month review times for the public. Subsequently, a written response must be prepared and documented for each concern or for similar concerns. While this occurs, the work on the project is all but halted. Often the environmental documents provided to the public for review are voluminous and complex, and describe the project in technical terms not easily understood by the general public. As a result, the documents are read and understood by only a limited number of people.
The public involvement process required by the existing regulations could be simplified and shortened if information were provided in smaller packages at more frequent intervals in an informal process. Smaller public meetings to focus on specific local issues would also enable planners to better address the well-defined needs of specific locations. Additionally, increased use of the Internet to disseminate information about a project should be encouraged. This low-cost method of providing information to a large number of people would benefit both the public and the planners by reducing or eliminating the existing stop-and-go process.
Centralize Digital Mapping Products
Good base maps are the single most critical element of environmental infrastructure and land use planning. The U.S. Geological Survey's quadrangle maps are used by civil engineers, water resource scientists, environmentalists, geologists, and the general public to answer a myriad of questions. Many other federal and state agencies possess paper and digital mapping products they have developed for their agency's use. Maps currently available to the public provide value far beyond the cost to produce them. The USGS maps have been in use for many years and are available in paper form from the US government.
ACEC supports acceleration of the National Digital Orthophoto Program (NDOP) to ensure completion of a nationwide inventory of high-resolution, accurate, digital imagery to supplement and update existing USGS topographic maps for transportation planning. The NDOP, which is administered by the U.S. Geological Survey's National Mapping Division, is a collaborative effort between government and the private sector.
The NDOP pools funds from several federal agencies, and state governments, including some state transportation departments, and relies on private contractors, using the qualifications-based selection (QBS) process, to develop and maintain this critical layer of geospatial information for the nation. Timely completion of this digital inventory would be a significant benefit to state and national efforts relative to transportation planning. By making available to transportation planners pre-existing standardized national digital mapping products developed by various government agencies, transportation planners can hit the ground running on a planning project rather than wait for months and spending thousands of dollars for new mapping to be developed.
There are other examples of how time may be saved in the development of planning transportation projects in the report attached to my testimony. Taken together, we believe our recommendations can reduce the time it takes to deliver transportation projects by as much as 30% while at the same time, protecting the environment, enhancing public participation, and designing high quality roads, bridges and transit systems for the American people.
These briefly stated suggestions summarize only a portion of our vision for the reauthorization of ISTEA. We commend this Subcommittee for the hard work and dedication to this important task. Your efforts are apparent to all of us in the transportation industry. We stand ready to serve you, and the American people, in any capacity you deem necessary as you chart the course of our transportation system for the coming years.
Thank you Mr. Chairman for this opportunity to testify.