AMID TOXIC partisanship, agreement reigns regarding the benefits of building more roads, bridges and rail. Infrastructure spending, politicians agree, brings short-term job creation and long-term productivity enhancement, and can be financed cheaply at historically low interest rates. The presidential candidates competed to promise the most infrastructure. Indications are that the GOP Congress will give President-elect Donald Trump much, if not all, of the $1 trillion over 10 years he proposed.
Another point of agreement is the need to speed up planning and construction, lest the stimulative impact dissipate and the long-term impact recede into eternity. President Obama memorably lamented that the “shovel ready” projects said to be in his 2009 job-creation bill weren’t. Last Sunday, Mr. Trump complained that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) permitting can keep projects “waiting in line for 15 years before they get rejected.” His allusion to the EPA probably applies mainly to private-sector construction, but still, Mr. Trump’s complaint resonates: It seems wrong that the country that built the Golden Gate Bridge in just over four years, is budgeting almost that much time just to rehabilitate Beach Drive, the 6½ -mile road through Rock Creek Park.
Any new infrastructure drive should include a serious effort to streamline bureaucratic red tape. We don’t necessarily exclude reforming environmental rules affecting private-sector oil drillers and pipeline builders — if, indeed, Mr. Trump was serious when he added that “if somebody is not doing the right thing, we’re not going to approve.” Given the pro-industry bent of his Cabinet choices, of course, that is a big “if.”
What seems wrong, however, is over-simplifying the issue. The vast majority of federally funded highway projects do not require an environmental impact statement. There’s relatively little hard data on delays due to federal regulation (in part because there’s no clear standard for such basic concepts as when a project begins and when it ends), although the Federal Highway Administration estimated in 2002 that it takes between nine and 19 years for major projects to go from concept to concrete.
Consider Beach Drive. In a perfect world, the rehab would have begun in 2011, when the old, potholed surface officially wore out. But there were issues about stormwater drainage to hash out with District officials. Work was scheduled to begin in March, not September, but contractor bids came back unexpectedly high. The National Park Service had to scrounge money from other projects — which, by the way, will be delayed as a result, an agency official tells us. At the last minute, work was held up three more days by some unanticipated traffic-light issues. Such accumulated locally caused delays are typical, according to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report. How scandalous any of them were, or how federal legislation could have avoided them, is less clear.
Congress has made repeated streamlining efforts, including in the 2012 transportation bill, which is still too new to evaluate. Congress has also said, though, that considerations such as the environment, historic preservation, prevailing wages and individual property rights must be addressed before pouring federally funded concrete.
Those laws, in part, reflect the now-forgotten backlash to the Interstate Highway System which improved the country’s transportation efficiency, but also ravaged landscapes and central cities. A half-century later, the interstates are often cited as a symbol of the can-do construction spirit we must recover. In truth, their unwelcome side effects help explain why we sometimes go slower today.
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