WASHINGTON - Today, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held the hearing, “Infrastructure Project Streamlining and Efficiency: Achieving Faster, Better, and Cheaper Results.” Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:
“This hearing’s title asks whether we are able to build transportation projects ‘faster, better and cheaper.’ That has a nice ring to it, and I agree with the intent, but I’d add one more adjective to that list: smarter. When it comes to streamlining legislation, being ‘smarter’ also means understanding how things are working now and allowing the existing streamlining measures to be well on their way to implementation before we enact new ones that are likely to delay the benefits of earlier streamlining measures that are still being implemented.
“As we know, one tool designed to help public agencies make smarter decisions is the National Environmental Policy Act. When it works as intended, NEPA ensures that federal decision-makers are better informed through project analysis and community engagement. When the NEPA process is well-coordinated, it can improve project outcomes, reduce costs and identify conflicts early enough to resolve them without delay. Unfortunately, there are times when coordination isn’t done well and projects are delayed without good reason.
“That is why I supported the 22 streamlining provisions that passed in MAP-21 in 2012 and the 18 additional streamlining provisions included in the FAST Act in 2015. I believe that it is smart to improve coordination between agencies, to avoid duplication and to focus agency reviews and public input on the projects with the most significant impacts. I continue to believe that the measures included in the past two bills have real promise to improve timelines and outcomes. But we will only see those benefits if we give them an opportunity to be fully implemented by USDOT, and actively used by our states, Native American tribes and community partners.
“For that reason, one of our committee’s top priorities right now should be oversight to make sure that the existing streamlining measures are implemented fully and effectively. Moreover, adopting new measures at this juncture could well perform a dis-service to project delivery by delaying implementation of the new authorities from MAP-21 and FAST Act. A new report released in March by the USDOT Office of the Inspector General states that there are real risks in enacting new streamlining measures before the old ones are implemented. The IG report says that the streamlining measures Congress adopted in the FAST Act may have perversely delayed the benefits from the MAP-21 streamlining provisions, which had to be revised in order to incorporate the FAST Act changes.
“In other words, we are already seeing some counterproductive effects of adopting additional streamlining measures and we must act carefully to avoid doing so yet again.
“We also all need to be clear on two critical points when it comes to transportation project delivery and delays. First, ninety percent of highways projects are already categorically excluded from extensive environmental analysis under NEPA. The environmental reviews for those projects are completed in a month on average. About four percent of the remaining highway projects face the most extensive reviews. Those are large, complicated projects. They are not the vast majority of highways projects.
“Second, although environmental permits and reviews take a lion’s share of blame for delays, multiple studies and reports have demonstrated that project delays more often result from causes that are unrelated to environmental laws. Last year, a report from the Treasury Department found that a lack of public funding is by far the most common factor hindering the completion of transportation projects. We will not solve our underlying funding shortage by cutting environmental reviews.
“The best way to ensure a timely completion of environmental permits and reviews is by bringing all agencies together to coordinate early. However, funding constraints at the Federal permitting agencies, such as the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, do not enable them to engage early in all projects. Unfortunately, the fiscal year 2018 cuts proposed to the EPA and the Department of Interior budgets will only exacerbate permitting delays.
“I will always be open to looking for ways to make government run more effectively, to improve transparency and accountability and avoid unnecessary duplication or delays. Completing projects more quickly brings the benefits of that project to a community more quickly, whether it is less time wasted in traffic, fewer fatalities, or new access to jobs, housing and other destinations.
“But we also know that projects can have real impacts on communities and the environment. Congress must ensure that any revisions to the way we review projects are going to result in smarter processes and better outcomes that will not impede the progress we have made to date.
“I look forward to hearing from the witnesses on this matter. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”