President Barack Obama had a grand vision of fixing the country’s infrastructure. Bureaucracy stood in his way.
Obama hoped the $787 billion Reinvestment and Recovery Act would put Americans to work in record numbers as they embarked upon “shovel-ready” projects to fix roads, bridges, tunnels, runways, transmission lines and more. The paychecks and improved public assets would help the country recover more quickly from the recession he inherited in 2008.
The vision fizzled when the shovels got wrapped in red tape.
“Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected,” Obama declared three years into his first term.
Almost 10 years later, Americans have seen nothing approaching a wide-scale upgrade of infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers generates a nationwide infrastructure report card every four years, and in 2017 gave the country a "D+." The public wants an "A."
We see few shovels in the ground for one primary reason. “Shovel-ready” requires years of environmental processes involving attorneys, activists and government bureaucrats who move like slugs. As studies carry from one year to the next, nothing gets built. White-collar professionals enrich themselves by generating reports, as hard-hat workers wait for work to begin.
“The politicians really don’t understand how cumbersome the process is these days. Environmental permitting, especially on road projects can take years. You’re hiring attorneys, not really shoveling a lot of dirt,” said William Ibbs, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkley, as quoted in 2011 by Politico.
State and federal officials originally planned an environmental assessment that would take most of 10 years before adding lanes to I-25 between Monument and Castle Rock. Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers reminded state officials how the country put a man on the moon only eight years after President John Kennedy asked for it. Only political pressure and public outcry prevented a needlessly protracted study of I-25.
President Donald Trump wants a permanent stop to sluggish studies holding up projects that could benefit the country. To speed things up, he proposes a comprehensive overhaul of the National Environmental Policy Act.
The most important revision would require government agencies to complete full-scale “Environmental Impact Statements” within two years. The revision would allow one year for less comprehensive studies.
Energy companies, business-advocacy organizations, and labor unions support the proposal as a move to create good jobs and improve infrastructure to benefit Americans from all walks of life.
Environmental activists hate the idea, citing climate change as the need for environmental studies that drag on for a decade or more.
“Forcing federal agencies to ignore environmental threats is a disgraceful abdication of our responsibility to protect the planet for future generations,” said Brett Hartle, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
No rational person wants federal agencies to “ignore environmental threats.” Rather, the American people want federal agencies to work quickly and efficiently to identify and mitigate potential environmental consequences.
Just as we have a responsibility to protect the planet for future generations, we have an obligation to not saddle them with deteriorating assets they will need to survive. Neglected roads and bridges are not safe, as seen over the years with too many tragic events on I-25.
Furthermore, inadequate roads contribute to climate change by rendering cars to idle in traffic jams. The obstruction of pipelines contributes to climate change by leaving diesel-burning trains and trucks to transport fuel. Bureaucratic hurdles to transmission lines contribute to climate change by holding up wind and solar projects. The obstruction of mining impedes the production of batteries for electric cars and the storage of power produced by solar and wind.
We could go on but will suffice to assert that nothing good comes from miring studies in bureaucratic sludge. We must determine the environmental consequences of each public works project. We should do so efficiently, within two years or less.