Senator Max Baucus
EPW Committee Hearing on Environmental Streamlining
Thank you Mr. Chairman. I appreciate your interest in this issue and look forward to working under your leadership as we try to resolve these problems. I was privileged to be one of the authors of TEA-21. I helped write sections 1308 and 1309. These are the sections that direct the Secretary of Transportation to find ways to expedite the project approval process and get construction underway faster.
I remember working with Senators Warner, Graham, Wyden and Chafee and with the House members to come to a compromise on the environmental streamlining provisions included in TEA-21. At the time, I had heard from my Department of Transportation and from others about how cumbersome a process it is to come to completion on a highway project. Everyone who worked on TEA 21 both the House and Senate, wanted to include a direction to the USDOT to streamline the planning and project development processes for the states.
We were very clear--The environment and the environmental reviews should NOT get short shrift! But, we needed to find a way to make it easier to get a project done, eliminate unnecessary delays, move faster and with as little paperwork as possible.
I cannot over-emphasize that the planning and environmental provisions of TEA-21 need to be implemented in a way that will streamline and expedite, not complicate, the process of delivering transportation projects. These projects that we’re trying to expedite provide good paying jobs for the folks in Montana and for every state. Contracts must be let in a timely manner. That is why Congress directed the USDOT to include certain elements in their regulations on environmental streamlining.
We included concepts to be incorporated - like concurrent environmental reviews by agencies and reasonable deadlines for the agencies to follow when completing their reviews. Certainly we did not legislate an easy task to the USDOT. Trying to coordinate so many separate agencies is like trying to herd cats.
The whole concept of environmental streamlining -- that is, to make the permit and approval process work more smoothly and effectively, while still ensuring protection of the environment -- is one of the more-difficult challenges of TEA-21.
So I waited for the rules to come out. And waited. And two years after the passage of TEA-21 I finally got them. I have to tell you Mr. Chairman. I’m was very disappointed when those rules came out in May of 2000. I believe those regulations hit very far from the mark. Those regulations were supposed to help the State DOTS get their jobs done better and more efficiently-not make their jobs harder. They were supposed to answer questions-but what is contained in those documents raises even more questions than before because they were vague where they needed to be precise.
Those proposed rules would make it even harder, if not impossible to come to a decision. It would have been even more difficult for States to deliver their programs. Contracts wouldn’t get let and jobs would be lost. So the DOT solicited comments--which I understand were overwhelmingly negative-- and went back to the drawing board and we never heard from them again. Even when a new President took over. New administration. No new rules. And today we have nothing. We’re exactly where we were in 1998. As for sections 1308 and 1309. Nothing has been done to implement them. Its just as cumbersome today to bring a highway project to completion.
This Committee has held three hearings on the subject of environmental streamlining since the passage of TEA-21 in 1998. This is the fourth. I understand that late yesterday the President signed an Executive Order calling for a handful of projects to be supervised by the heads of USDOT and CEQ. The highest levels would personally make sure that there were timely environmental reviews.
That would have been a good start in 1998. But, its too little too late. W e are on the verge of reauthorization of TEA-21. This time, I would like to see us specifically legislate environmental streamlining. No waiting for regulations or more executive orders. Congress needs to be clear about what they want to see and put it into law.
To that end, along with Senator Crapo and others, I plan to introduce a proposal on environmental streamlining. It will be part of a series of bills that we are introducing on highway reauthorization.
This bill will address three issues. First, the US DOT needs to be the lead agency on at least two requirements—“Purpose and Need” for a project and “Scope of Alternatives.” This will make sure that any stalemates are resolved quickly. Second, we should allow states to take over the role of the USDOT if they can meet certain requirements and if they choose to take on that role. This will eliminate another step of bureaucracy. Last, we must ensure that resource agencies act in a timely manner. When it comes time for an agency like Fish and Wildlife to assess the extent of damage (if any) to a wetlands or the Army Corps Engineers to issue a permit, these agencies shouldn’t be able to take years to make these decisions.
We need to legislate specific time limits for them to follow. No answer at all is not acceptable. It is unacceptable for agencies to sit on their decision for years. We can’t make them issue the permit and we don’t want to, but we can make them make a decision in a timely manner.
The rest of the world works on deadlines. They can too. These three things will help to expedite the planning and NEPA processes.
These three things are not meant to be comprehensive streamlining, but I believe that they will be a big help and a great start. The bill we will introduce will be a solid beginning to Congress setting some specific guidelines for expediting the planning and environmental review processes.
Once again, I want to reiterate that I want to make sure that environmental laws and policies are obeyed to the letter. But, there’s got to be a faster, easier way to do the work that needs to be done on our surface transportation system, while continuing to protect the environment. I believe our bill will be a means to those ends.
Thank you Mr. Chairman.