President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that’s designed to streamline the approval process for building roads, bridges and other infrastructure by establishing “one federal decision” for major projects and setting an average two-year goal for permitting.
“This over-regulated permitting process is a massive self-inflicted wound on our country,” Trump said in a press conference at Trump Tower in New York. “It’s disgraceful.”
Among other things, the president’s order will rescind a previous decree signed by former President Barack Obama that required federal agencies to account for flood risk and climate change when paying for roads, bridges or other structures.
It also allows the Office of Management and Budget to establish goals for environmental reviews and permitting of infrastructure projects and then track their progress — with automatic elevation to senior agency officials when deadlines are missed or extended, according to the order.
The order calls for tracking the time and costs of conducting environmental reviews and making permitting decisions, and it allows the budget office to consider penalties for agencies that fail to meet established milestones.
Critics say there’s danger in streamlining the reviews. “This is yet another outrageous example of Trump’s insistence on putting corporate interests ahead of people’s health and safety,” said Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director with the League of Conservation Voters, a political advocacy group.
“This order will put people throughout the country at risk by allowing developers to ignore potential hazards while muzzling the public’s ability to weigh in on potentially harmful projects near their homes,” Taurel said. Others said environmental groups might bring legal challenges if the order leads to approvals without meaningful scrutiny.
New York Meeting
Trump said that if projects are deemed to create environmental problems, they won’t be approved. The president took part in an infrastructure discussion during his visit to New York City Tuesday, joined by officials including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council.
Because the federal government owns less than 10 percent of U.S. infrastructure, the Trump administration has focused on efforts to accelerate environmental reviews and permitting for projects that can take years and create unpredictability for investors.
Chao said Tuesday that it can take decades to get a few miles of highway or a bridge built because projects can be subject to as many as 65 requirements and permits.
“For far too long, critical projects have been delayed by duplicative permitting and environmental requirements which added time and unnecessary expenses to much needed projects,” Chao said in a statement.
Tuesday’s order revokes a previous one that Obama signed in January 2015, requiring federal agencies to account for future flood risk when spending money on infrastructure projects, a restriction that would extend to homes with federally backed mortgages as well. That order, which was still being implemented through regulations, would have caused some federal projects to be moved to different areas, built to higher standards or canceled altogether.
Rolling back that provision won’t prohibit state and local agencies from using more stringent standards if they choose, the White House said.
Opponents of Obama’s order, including the National Association of Home Builders, had argued that by requiring homes in flood plains to be built higher than before, it would increase construction costs.
“This action by President Trump will provide much-needed regulatory relief for the housing community and help American home buyers,” association Chairman Granger MacDonald said in a statement.
Supporters, such as insurers and consumer-safety advocates, said it would protect lives and reduce federal spending after floods and other natural disasters.
Revoking the 2015 order “is a fiscally irresponsible decision that is a disaster for taxpayers,” said Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, which advocates for free-market solutions to climate change. “We are going to be spending and wasting taxpayer dollars to build stuff in areas where it simply shouldn’t be built.”
The Trump administration has said it plans to release a legislative package by this fall to meet the president’s pledge to invest $1 trillion to upgrade U.S. infrastructure. The White House signaled it wants to allocate $200 billion in federal dollars over 10 years to pay for large-scale and rural projects and to induce states, localities and the private sector to spend $800 billion.
The administration hopes to get a tax overhaul through Congress by Thanksgiving and plans to put an infrastructure bill in the House as soon as a tax measure moves from the House to the Senate, Cohn told reporters in New York on Tuesday. Asked whether infrastructure could be done this year given the items ahead of it, Cohn said, “We hope it’s this year.”
Trump approved an earlier executive order just four days after taking office to expedite environmental reviews and approvals for high-priority infrastructure projects, and White House officials in March convened a working group of federal agencies to identify policies, regulations and statutes that hinder project approvals.
The president also announced on June 9 during the White House’s “infrastructure week” that he was creating a council that already exists, the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council. It was authorized by Congress in 2015 and implemented by Obama. The council is not meeting its potential, the White House said at the time.
The executive order Trump signed on Tuesday calls for using the dashboard that Congress created under Obama to track the progress of major projects.
The Business Roundtable sent Cohn a letter on April 7 reiterating that “existing law already provides a mechanism for comprehensive reform” of the permitting process for major projects.
A fact sheet the administration released with its budget on May 23 calls for designating a single federal entity to shepherd each project through the review and permitting process instead of navigating multiple agencies, as well as shifting infrastructure permitting to state and local officials where appropriate.
That’s particularly important for private-sector investors, who have capital available but lack enough projects and certainty about deals, Chao has said.
Democrats have urged the administration to focus on the streamlining provisions that have already been approved but not yet fully implemented and said the problem is really a lack of direct federal spending for projects.
Some experts have said that while existing procedures can be streamlined and made more efficient, most delays are caused by the need for state and local approvals and other factors including available funding. Other observers say the process raises concerns about the quality of reviews.
“We don’t trust that this will be a good thing,” said Scott Edwards, co-director of the justice project at Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based environmental group. The organization has filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration alleging, among other things, that an infrastructure advisory committee Trump created has held discussions in private without meeting federal disclosure requirements.