There is no question that the economy of Colorado Springs and El Paso County are strongly tied to two things: the U.S. military and tourism. The economic impact of the military is obvious, with El Paso County being home to the U.S. Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, and the new U.S. Space Command. But nearly as important is the free flow of tourism into Colorado Springs, which serves as a major part of the lifeblood of the local economy. According to Visit Colorado Springs, 23 million visitors visited the region in 2018, spending a total of $2.4 billion and resulting in an estimated direct economic impact of more than $199 million. Simply put, without these military bases and the transportation means for tourists to flock to the area from out of town, the Pikes Peak region’s economy would be seriously impeded.
As state legislators, we have seen firsthand how exorbitant costs and endless delays obstruct necessary infrastructure projects from being realized, despite the clear added value these projects bring to help grow the local and state economy. In particular, the expansion of I-25 to fix the many bottlenecks has taken much longer than expected due to needless delays, preventing potential tourism growth. This is in part thanks to the burdensome review process of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a federal law that requires that major infrastructure projects — including highways and any projects on military bases — undergo a prolonged and expensive waiting period while going through the proper channels to get approved.
Hopefully this burdensome regulation is due for a course correction, as the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is proposing common-sense reforms to NEPA, the first update in more than 40 years. The CEQ’s intended reforms aim to expedite and streamline the review process to meet the increased demand for new and updated infrastructure in our 21st century economy.
It is important for the CEQ to hear from local Colorado voices to ensure that the federal government understands the need for roads, bridges, and tunnels that ensure safety and ease of movement.
NEPA was first signed into law by President Richard Nixon to ensure that appropriate environmental considerations were made during the infrastructure approval process. At the time, this was common sense, and its original scope continues to be so, as caring for the environment in a reasonable manner transcends party politics. However, current federal policy has lost sight of NEPA’s original scope, instead obstructing infrastructure projects through overlapping regulations, inefficient means of collecting information, and inconsistent rules across agencies. All this red tape has led to the approval process time to grow year after year, now taking 4½ years on average — and routinely much longer — at the cost of $4.2 million per project. Oftentimes, these steep hurdles deter investors from getting necessary projects going before they’ve even started.
If you wish to let the CEQ know how important their proposed reforms will be to Colorado, and to El Paso County, you may submit comments in support of the reforms by going to https://www.regulations.gov/ and following the instructions for submitting comments to Docket ID No. CEQ 2019 0003, on or before March 10, 2020.
The CEQ is committed to reversing this trend by creating rules that make the review process more efficient and modernized. President Trump promised in his rollout of the proposal that his new rules would shorten the review time for projects to two years or less. This would be a welcome improvement, as NEPA has been standing in the way of meaningful infrastructure projects that improve quality of life and facilitate economic growth. Take the 12-mile Interstate 70 expansion in Denver, for example. The final environmental quality report took 13 years to develop and thousands of pages of analysis, before a single inch of pavement was able to be put in the ground. NEPA reform would save taxpayer money and put thousands more to work by shortening these excessive delays.
While courts have ruled that for certain projects NEPA regulations do not apply, President Donald Trump’s reforms to the process would codify this interpretation and create meaningful change in the federal infrastructure approval process. Cutting through the red tape and allowing infrastructure projects to get off the ground will facilitate tourism in cities such as Colorado Springs and make needless delays such as the I-25 expansion a thing of the past.
Paul Lundeen is a member of the Colorado State Senate, representing District 9. Lois Landgraf is a member of the Colorado House of Representatives representing District 21.