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October 5, 2017

The 47-Permit Fiasco That Could Spell Doom For America’s Infrastructure

In today’s tumultuous political environment, Republicans and Democrats in Washington rarely agree on anything. From healthcare to immigration, the two parties couldn’t be much farther apart.

Every now and then, a rare opportunity presents itself. When it does, we need Congress to act – before anyone changes their mind. So when President Donald Trump as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress agree that it’s time to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure, lawmakers should jump into action and chart a course to repair and upgrade our roads, highways, freeways, bridges, and airports.

But there’s a snag. Even if Washington works together to fund major infrastructure upgrades, the whole thing could be upended by runaway regulations. Every single one of those repairs and upgrades will have to go through some regulatory approval process. Many of these regulations can be tediously strict and threaten to make the simplest, most commonsense projects impossible.

Earlier this year, the Bayonne Bridge project finally reopened at the Port of Newark. The project was a no-brainer: raise the bridge so a new generation of ships could enter one of the largest ports in the country. The project was as shovel-ready as they come. It did not require a new foundation, nor did it establish a new right-of-way in the shipping channel.

“It seemed ingenious at the time: Elevate the deck of the existing Bayonne Bridge to accommodate the giant cargo ships that will begin passing through the Panama Canal in 2015 after the project to widen and deepen it is scheduled to be finished. Building a new bridge or tunneling under Kill Van Kull would have been much more expensive and would have required years of regulatory reviews. That was back in 2009.” (New York Times, 1/2/14)

Thanks to onerous regulations, which led to a never-ending legal battle, this simple, no-brainer infrastructure upgrade took eight years to complete. The Bayonne Bridge project, which began in 2009, couldn’t even break ground until 2013. It spent four years bogged down in permitting, reviews, surveys, and endless government red tape:

“Since then, the Port Authority’s ‘fast-track’ approach to a project that will not alter the bridge’s footprint has generated more than 5,000 pages of federally mandated archaeological, traffic, fish habitat, soil, pollution and economic reports that have cost over $2 million. A historical survey of every building within two miles of each end of the bridge alone cost $600,000 — even though none would be affected by the project.

“After four years of work, the environmental assessment was issued in May and took into consideration comments from 307 organizations or individuals. The report invoked 207 acronyms, including M.B.T.A. (Migratory Bird Treaty Act) and N.L.R. (No Longer Regulated). Fifty-five federal, state and local agencies were consulted and 47 permits were required from 19 of them.” (New York Times, 1/2/14)

In addition to the dozens of regulatory landmines that delayed the project, these hurdles also triggered multiple lawsuits that slowed the process even further.

“Raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge at the mouth of the Port of Newark, for example, requires no new foundations or right of way, and would not require approvals at all except that it spans navigable water. Raising the roadway would allow a new generation of efficient large ships into the port. But the project is now approaching its fifth year of legal process, bogged down in environmental litigation.” (Wall Street Journal, 11/22/13)

While the bridge finally reopened in 2017, construction is expected to last another two years. By the time the project is fully complete, this shovel-ready upgrade will take a full decade.

That’s one bridge. According to CNN, more than 55,000 bridges in the United States need to be repaired, replaced, or upgraded. That astronomical figure is only a percentage of the total number of American infrastructure projects that are already long overdue.

Our country has an infrastructure problem. But before we can begin to tackle it, we first have to address the massive regulatory burdens placed on even the most necessary projects. The White House and Congress both have the power to streamline the regulatory process and they should use that power to clear the path for a major infrastructure funding package. By failing to act on regulations first, lawmakers will effectively grind any upgrades to a halt before crews can even break ground.

America’s crumbling bridges and roadways are a crisis in the making. The decade-long Bayonne Bridge project is a warning that even the most critical projects will quickly become bogged down if we don’t streamline regulations and add some common sense into the process of fixing our aging infrastructure.