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NEPA modernization needed to protect environment, infrastructure

In 1986, Top Gun hit the big screens, the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl – let’s hope for the last time – and 1.44-megabyte floppy disks were hitting the market. It was also the last time regulations enforcing one of our nation’s most important environmental laws – the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA – were revised. A lot has changed in technology, sports and culture since 1986, so why aren’t the regulations that govern the infrastructure our economy depends on being brought up to date as well?

NEPA was signed into law in 1970 as one our nation’s first broad frameworks for protecting our environment. The goal, a justifiable and important one, was to ensure proper environmental consideration be given in construction projects. Proposals to build airports, highways, military bases and other developments set in motion assessment requirements meant to determine the likely environmental effects of these projects. Unfortunately, the NEPA process has become bogged down in needless and often duplicative red tape. It has also often been used as a way to block development – regardless of the actual environmental effects of a project.

The trouble with NEPA isn’t its goal of protecting the environment. Instead, it’s the failure of the federal government to revise the law’s regulations. This failure leads to wasted time and money, delayed projects and no additional environmental protections compared with what could be achieved if we were to bring these NEPA regulations into the 21st century.

According to a recent U.S. Department of Energy report, the average time it takes to complete the review process for a NEPA assessment has reached a mind-boggling 70 months, or nearly six years. At an average cost north of $4 million, NEPA’s environmental goals aren’t the problem, it’s the red tape blocking the process from working.

In Wisconsin, we’ve seen the NEPA process play out in ways that have delayed projects and caused costs to unnecessarily increase. The St. Croix River Crossing project connecting Houlton and Stillwater, Minn., is a great example. Replacing the congested and deteriorating two-lane Stillwater Lift Bridge had been identified as a priority as early as the 1970s. However, opponents successfully used the NEPA process and a series of lawsuits to delay this project for 40 years. It took an act of Congress in 2012 to clear the project for construction. The bridge finally opened to traffic in 2017. All told, this single project required many revisions of its environmental impact statement, as well as supplements, totaling thousands of pages. The cost to taxpayers in delays, expenses to complete the impact statement and lawsuits may never be fully known, but it’s easily into the tens of millions of dollars – for a bridge that was wanted by local residents to increase safety and spur economic development.

We can protect the environment and advance needed infrastructure at the same time and do so in a manner that encourages investment and protects taxpayers. But doing so requires that we modernize NEPA’s seriously outdated regulations. It requires a concise process that returns to the ultimate goal of NEPA, which was to protect the environment through public involvement – and not the current practice involving reams of paper reports so long and complicated that even seasoned attorneys have trouble understanding what’s going on.

NEPA regulatory reforms can be simple. The process needs to be more transparent. Local and state governments, builders and the public should know what’s required of them and how long it will take before projects are considered. The process should also be more coordinated. When multiple federal agencies are involved in a project review, they should cooperate with each other so those required to submit the EIS aren’t duplicating efforts, causing additional monetary and time losses.

NEPA’s goal of protecting the environment should be honored, but, at the same time, the process should be brought out of the 1980s. It’s a goal that can and should be met and I’m hopeful Washington will tackle it in the very near future.

Pat Goss is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.

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