If recent history is a guide, President Trump won’t be getting much infrastructure money from Congress anytime soon. Republicans stiffed former President Barack Obama’s repeated requests to splurge on roads and bridges, and they just got done slashing federal revenues through tax cuts and boosting spending on the military and domestic agencies—including a modest bump for infrastructure.
But the developer-turned-president believes he can jump-start the rebuilding process even before Congress acts: The Trump administration is changing the way the federal government approves infrastructure projects in a bid to speed up decision-making and, ultimately, cut down the time it takes to finish them.
The goal is to shave years off the time it takes project sponsors to obtain the many federal sign-offs required for major endeavors—down to an average of two years, Trump has said. The process has stretched in some cases to a decade or more, as federally funded efforts to build new highways, pipelines, bridges, dams, and electrical power plants get bogged down in the approvals process. By streamlining the bureaucracy, the administration argues it can lure more investment from the private sector, as well as from state and local governments. That money would bridge the gap between the $200 billion Trump has proposed in new federal dollars and the $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending that he wants his plan to spur overall.
Trump’s moves have raised fears among environmentalists that the administration is eyeing an end run around longstanding regulations in the National Environmental Policy Act designed to ensure that the construction of new infrastructure doesn’t threaten wildlife habitats or pollute sources of drinking water, among other aims. And they view the harping about permitting delays as a diversion from the real obstacle to infrastructure improvements: a lack of money. But the effort has drawn praise from some Trump skeptics who say the changes are a needed bureaucratic push that could save not only time, but also a significant amount of money in costs.
“The [administration] staff seemed to be making a serious effort to actually push projects along,” said Philip K. Howard, the founder and chairman of Common Good, a nonprofit group that released a 2015 report that has influenced the Trump administration’s push to cut red tape. “Willpower,” Howard said, “can go a long way.”
It’s more than sheer willpower, however.
Last August, Trump signed an executive order establishing what administration officials call the “One Federal Decision” policy, which designates a single department or agency as the lead decision-maker for the federal permitting process. If the project is a new bridge, for example, the Department of Transportation would take the lead. A new pipeline or water project would go through the Army Corps of Engineers.
The department in charge is responsible for creating a timetable for approvals across the government and ensuring that key milestones are met. It’s an important change, administration officials and infrastructure advocates said, because the permitting process comprises 29 different federal statutes over 15 departments and agencies. Whether they’re dealing with an environmental regulation under the Clean Air Act or another rule under the Endangered Species Act—or both, potentially—projects often must receive permits from several different agencies before a final decision is made. That can lead to what officials call “decision deserts,” where there’s no definitive beginning or end to the process.
Under another change, departments would conduct more reviews concurrently, rather than sequentially, to speed things up. The administration has given the example of a hydroelectric project near the Pacific Ocean in Washington state: The law required a study on the impact it would have on salmon, which fell under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Three months later, a separate agency within the Interior Department conducted a similar analysis on trout. Under the new policy, those studies might be conducted at the same time, speeding up decision-making.
“This over-regulated permitting process is a massive self-inflicted wound on our country,” Trump said in signing the order last year. “It’s disgraceful—denying our people much-needed investments in their community.” The president is traveling to Ohio for an infrastructure-themed speech on Thursday, where administration officials expect him to tout a project to widen the I-271 highway to relieve congestion near Cleveland. The state government was able to cut the timeline for NEPA approvals by more than half through an agreement with the federal government.
The administration is now in the process of implementing the executive order throughout the government. “We think, very simply, we can make a cultural and behavioral change in the way that agencies talk to each other and the way that we interact with both the public and private sector, by providing predictability, transparency to a process that has previously been considered a black box,” said Alex Herrgott, the associate director for infrastructure at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which is coordinating the administration’s permitting reforms.
Exactly how much difference speedier permitting can make is a matter of debate among infrastructure advocates. Howard’s Common Good report, which was titled “Two Years, Not 10 Years” and cited both by Hillary Clinton in her 2016 campaign plan for infrastructure and Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, asserts that a six-year delay in permitting—about the amount of time it says many projects take—can increase total project costs by $3.7 trillion. That’s more than twice the amount that advocates say needs to be added to federal, state, and local infrastructure investment over the next decade. As an extreme example, the report cited a desalination plant in San Diego that, because of legal challenges, took nine years to go through the permitting process and 12 years to produce fresh water.
The Trump administration included many of the report’s recommendations in the 55-page infrastructure plan it released in February, which combines proposals for new spending with legislative and administrative changes to the permitting process.
“What’s needed here is clear lines of authority,” Howard told me, a principle that has become central to the administration’s philosophy as well.
He and other advocates of permitting reform use the example of the Obama-era 2009 economic stimulus, which promised an infusion of money for “shovel-ready” projects only to have Obama concede, years later, that his administration had overestimated the number of projects that fit that definition. “In 2009,” the report says, “America had the money (over $800 billion in the economic stimulus package) but few permits.” Just 3.6 percent of the stimulus dollars ended up going to infrastructure projects.
The Trump administration, by contrast, is banking on attracting partnerships with the private sector and state and local governments to fund the bulk of new infrastructure projects. And overhauling the approval process is key to that effort.
“One of the things that discourages particularly the private sector, but also the public sector, is lack of certainty over the timing,” Howard said. “Why would you invest millions of dollars in a project when it might take a decade to get it approved? If you have a one- or two-year window, you might say, ‘Let’s go for it’ and see if [you] can do it.”
As a recent success story, Howard and administration officials point to the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City, a $4 billion project that took just 18 months to receive its federal permits and has already partially opened to traffic.
The Trump administration’s efforts are far from the first attempt to tackle bureaucratic delays in infrastructure. Under the Obama administration, Congress took a significant step forward with the enactment in 2015 of legislation written by Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Their bill established a permitting council that could settle disputes among federal agencies for major projects costing $200 million or more. The law also set up an online dashboard tracking the projects’ progress through the approvals process.
Trump administration officials say their ambition is much broader than the 2015 law and would streamline permitting for projects big and small. In addition to last year’s executive order, the administration’s infrastructure plan included proposals that would require either new legislation or more complex regulatory changes to the way NEPA and other environmental laws are applied. It would also delegate more authority to states and limit the ability of project opponents to slow progress through litigation.
Those proposals have alarmed environmental groups, which argue that blaming the permitting process for infrastructure delays is an attempt to “scapegoat” NEPA. The groups include the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supported the Portman-McCaskill bill in what its legislative director, Scott Slesinger, told me was an effort to “forestall worse changes” in the future.
Slesinger emailed me a packet of supporting documents finding that both the Common Good report and the Trump administration were significantly overstating the length of time it takes the federal government to approve infrastructure projects. Howard’s report, he said, relied on outdated studies. The average length of time was close to three-and-a-half years, not the 10 that Trump frequently cites.
“He can talk about 10 years,” Slesinger said, “but it’s a straw man and it’s garbage, and it’s not true.
“There are delays in projects,” he added. “It isn’t NEPA. It’s the lack of money.”
As an example, Slesinger cited the Army Corps of Engineers, which has listed projects totaling $97 billion that are ready to be started, but has an annual budget of only $5 billion. “It isn’t NEPA that’s the problem—it’s the missing $92 billion,” Slesinger said. He also pointed to other high-profile projects, like the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey and the Gateway tunnels under New York’s Hudson River, that have been delayed more from lack of money than environmental permits. Trump has fought with New York and New Jersey lawmakers over federal funding for the Gateway program, which is one of the biggest proposed infrastructure undertakings in the country at an expected cost of $20 billion. The administration’s stance is one thing that unites Howard and Slesinger. “It should be a scandal that the administration has pulled funding on it, or tried to,” Howard said.
Advocates for an expansive infrastructure bill were disappointed when Trump proposed only $200 billion in new federal spending over 10 years, and most of them doubt that money can be leveraged to generate the $1.5 trillion that the president claims it can. Brian Pallasch, the top lobbyist for the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the Trump administration’s permitting reforms were “a decent step forward,” but not enough. “There’s certainly money to be saved in all that,” he said. “My concern is that those aren’t necessarily savings that turn into additional revenue or appropriations to build additional projects.”
Slesinger also faulted the Trump administration for its implementation of the 2015 law. In one of the president’s first executive orders, Slesinger said, he created a duplicative permitting council in the Department of Commerce and was forced to rescind it as part of the August directive. Trump still hasn’t named a new permanent executive director for the council, a delay that prompted Portman and McCaskill to send him a letter of complaint. If the permitting board “was really doing its job,” Slesinger said, “things would get better.”
Howard said groups like the NRDC that were actually engaged in permitting reform in the past changed their tune—“for understandable reasons”—after the election of a Republican who made rolling back environmental regulations a top priority. “My report didn’t change,” he told me. “It’s just that they don’t like the person making the decisions. I understand that.”
He argued that streamlining approvals will be “an unalloyed benefit to the environment” because many projects seek to reduce the nation’s climate footprint—whether through increased use of mass transit, or new roads and bridges that seek to eliminate traffic bottlenecks that contribute to pollution. Howard also wants Trump to go even further and urge Congress to pass legislation that would preempt state laws holding up interstate projects. That is not currently part of the administration’s plan, which tries to give more power to states, not less.
For its part, the Trump administration is trying to avoid conflating a deregulatory agenda that has generated steep opposition from Democrats with the streamlining of the permitting process, which has more bipartisan support from mayors, governors, and legislators. “There is a better way for those of us within the federal family to harmonize that process that in no way compromises environmental protection,” Herrgott told me in an interview. “We don’t want to build bad projects. We’re not trying to force a ‘yes.’ We’re trying to force a decision.”
Herrgott said the much broader legislative proposals within Trump’s infrastructure plan were “an idea starter.” Officials at the White House and legislative staff on Capitol Hill acknowledged that Congress is unlikely to adopt most of them this year, both because of the impending midterm elections and because of opposition to some of the proposals in both parties. Howard told me Trump could get “halfway there” to his goal of a two-year approval process without action from lawmakers. “If you have a determined executive wanting to get something done,” he said, “you can kind of bulldoze through the bureaucracy.”
For a president continually frustrated by delays in Congress and within his own government, that seems like a challenge Trump would be eager to take on.