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Support for Environmental Review Reform Gains Momentum

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As House-Senate negotiations on a new water-resources authorization bill head into the home stretch, construction industry officials are calling for the final bill to include provisions to speed up regulatory reviews so that projects can get constructed sooner.

The new water-resources bill is just one front in the industry's fight to "streamline" the review process to expedite levees, dams and other projects that sometimes take years to move from planning through environmental reviews to actual construction.

"One of the ways we can address the infrastructure deficit … is to get projects built faster," says Brian Pallasch, the American Society of Civil Engineers' managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives.

Streamlining major infrastructure projects was a key part of the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). Despite some opposition from environmental groups, efforts to streamline environmental reviews now appear to be gaining a new level of support.

On Capitol Hill, such changes are being considered in the pending Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and maybe the next, yet-to-be introduced highway-transit reauthorization bill.

Moreover, the Obama administration says that accelerating project permitting is a priority.

The immediate streamlining battleground is the new WRDA. The House- and Senate-passed versions of WRDA that negotiators now are reconciling include language to expedite projects stalled for years by what critics call an overly bureaucratic and inefficient permitting process.

Provisions in the bills include giving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers more authority to take the lead on environmental reviews, limiting the time frame within which opponents can file lawsuits challenging projects, and excluding certain categories of projects from extensive National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews. Another provision would require multiple agencies' analyses of the same project to be conducted concurrently.

Environmental advocates contend that while the process governing NEPA reviews and permitting may take time, it is essential for ensuring projects harmful to the environment are never built.

But more efficient reviews don't necessarily lead to environmental degradation, construction officials counter. Steve Hall, vice president of government relations for the American Council of Engineering Companies, says, "This is not a question of weakening environmental oversight or reviews. It is simply putting some order into the process. The [construction] industry takes very seriously the idea that we need to do thorough environmental reviews. It just could be done in a much more efficient way so we're saving money in the long run."

The Obama administration has weighed in, too. In his Jan. 28 State of the Union speech and in his fiscal 2015 budget proposal, President Obama called for improvements in the way major infrastructure projects are reviewed and granted permits.

In February, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he would like to see federal agencies better coordinate permitting of transportation projects. Foxx said he believes such agency work could be "harmonized" without "jeopardizing the environment or project integrity."

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