The following editorial ran in the Chicago Tribune on June 16.
The nation has a huge backlog of infrastructure needs, and President Donald Trump wants to tackle them with a $1 trillion program. The president would like to deploy $200 billion in federal money to leverage private investment and state and local funds. It’s a promising idea that could improve our transportation system while generating blue-collar jobs in places that have lost them. But as former President Barack Obama could attest, it’s harder than it sounds.
In February 2009, Obama signed an $831 billion economic stimulus that included more than $100 billion for infrastructure projects. Shortly before taking office, he had said, “I think we can get a lot of work done fast.” When I met with the governors, all of them have projects that are shovel-ready, that are going to require us to get the money out the door, but they’ve already lined up the projects and they can make them work.”
It seemed to be just what the doctor ordered for a sick economy. But getting the prescription filled was another story.
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“Many of the road, bridge and sewer projects financed by the record-breaking spending bill took more than a year to even start construction as they got bogged down in bureaucratic red tape at the local level,” The New York Times reported in October 2014. Obama discovered to his dismay that, as he put it, “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.”
A new report from the nonpartisan reform group Common Good says there is a reason for that: impenetrable tangles of red tape that make it impossible for big public works to get done promptly. “Even projects to repair or update existing infrastructure require years of process from multiple agencies,” it says. “Decisions on new infrastructure, such as solar fields, wind farms and transmission lines, sometimes require a decade for approval.” A desalination plant in San Diego took 14 years.
The problem is that many parties have the capacity to stall a project, and no one has the capacity to move it forward quickly. Multiple permits are “an accident of the growth of government,” notes Common Good. “No one stopped to consider the implications of giving veto authority to any one of dozens of government departments.”
Individual steps have also gotten steeper. Environmental impact statements originally required only about 10 pages. Today, they often run 300. One for the Bayonne Bridge in New York City, which was a mere refurbishment of an old asset, filled 10,000 pages. Lawsuits are used by opponents both for delay and for leverage.
Gary Cohn, director of Trump’s National Economic Council, says the administration would like to slash permitting times from up to 10 years to no more than two. He explained recently, “The cost of infrastructure goes up dramatically as time goes on in the approval process, capital is tied up, it has people waiting for permits, and the amount of paperwork and the amount of fees that you just encumbered while you’re going through the approval process is enormous.”
The administration says that as many as 16 federal agencies have a say in highway permits. Then there are state and local officials to contend with. But these officials and the people they serve lose when endless obstruction leaves public needs unmet.
We’ve learned the perils of giving everyone the power to say no. A simpler, streamlined process, of the sort Cohn suggests, would make it easier to get to yes. Even Obama might agree.