Opinion: Ease regulation to unlock American investment

Rich Studley and Bill Schuette

Imagine turning on the radio while stuck in traffic and hearing that a new road or bridge was proposed to ease your traffic problems, but will have to wait 10 years for regulatory approval before the first shovel of dirt is turned. 

You may be tempted to throw your GPS out the window.  

Unfortunately, this is the situation facing many needed infrastructure projects across America. About 50 years ago, the National Environmental Policy Act was passed by Congress with the laudable goal of making sure we protect the environment while building new infrastructure.

Flash forward five decades and NEPA’s antiquated rules and regulations are excessively delaying the public works projects we need to rebuild our country. 

Delay comes at a cost. Truckers moving grocery and retail goods spend longer in traffic, public safety takes longer to arrive at an accident and parents sit in traffic while driving their kids to school. Funding is lost. Construction costs grow. What was meant to protect us has gotten so far out of control that it has essentially become a hidden regulatory tax.

In fact, today’s average NEPA review takes around 4.5 years and is often followed by a lengthy period of litigation, challenge, and re-assessment thanks to inefficient data collection, inconsistent rules across regulatory bodies, and increasingly speculative analyses of potential secondary impacts. Applicants can expect to pay around $4.2 million per project for the honor of weathering this review period, with no guarantee their projects will ever win approval.

Here in Michigan, an excessive NEPA review handcuffed the Grand Haven area for a decade before the construction of M-231 started, leaving a $170 million investment sitting on the side of the road. The traffic problems that necessitated the proposal certainly did not go away as 10 years drifted by, and the road, originally proposed in the 1990s, did not open to traffic until 2015. 

But, here is the good news. The Trump administration is doing something about it — and not a moment too soon.

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before leaving the White House, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Washington, to visit the National Institutes of Health's Vaccine Research Center in Bethesda, Md.

In a plan released to the public on Jan. 10, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) proposed to substantively reform NEPA for the first time in decades. In doing so, they hope to shift the focus of environmental review away from NIMBY-style activism and toward thorough, thoughtful and expedient consideration. The administration is focused on shortening the review time to two years and delivering a process that is both more comprehensive and more efficient, helping projects stay on schedule and on budget.

Beyond keeping individual projects on schedule, the administration’s reforms would strengthen our nation’s economic and energy security. Modernization of NEPA would clear the way for badly needed improvements to our nation’s energy infrastructure, from pipelines and export facilities to grid expansions and solar farms. And, updating NEPA would also remove some of the roadblocks that have long stood in the way of some of our nation’s most important infrastructure projects, from airports and railways to roads, bridges, and even the environmental protection structures like seawalls and breakwaters.

To say this work is long overdue is an understatement. The Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a shameful “D+” rating for its infrastructure in a recent study, underscoring the system’s current state of decay. The deterioration can be attributed to a lack of investment, in part due to litigation and opposition enabled by NEPA.

Modernizing NEPA will open the spigot of investment in American infrastructure, generating millions in local tax revenue and creating thousands of jobs in the process.

And, it is important to note that this economic growth doesn’t come at the expense of the environment. Investment unlocked by NEPA improvements will do more than repair roads and create jobs — they’ll also mitigate emissions by clearing the way for improved facilities, more efficient transmission, and conservation projects.

Rich Studley is president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. Bill Schuette is former attorney general of the state of Michigan.