Bush orders expedited reviews of major transportation projects

Saying complex permit requirements have hindered highway and airport construction, President Bush issued an executive order to federal agencies last Wednesday to expedite environmental reviews of major transportation projects.

Environmental groups have criticized the order, calling it an attempt to circumvent environmental safeguards and limit public debate.

But Pete Ruane, president and chief executive of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, said major transportation projects will still undergo rigorous and open environmental reviews.

“The only people who could have a problem with the executive order would be those who cast a blind eye at their fellow Americans trapped in traffic and those who refuse to acknowledge that a car, bus, truck or plane stuck in traffic is creating unnecessary air pollution,” he said.

Bush’s order requires the secretary of transportation to compile a list of high-priority projects such as construction of roads, bridges, tunnels and airports. A new interagency task force would then “identify and promote policies that can effectively streamline the process” without compromising environmental protection or public health.

Members of several environmental groups said they view the order as an effort by the Bush administration to weaken the 32-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark law that governs how federal agencies must study environmental effects of proposed projects and include the public when making decisions.

“This administration wants to shoot the sheriff protecting our environment so the highway robbers can ride again,” Deron Lovaas, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the New York Times.

But Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said all activities flowing from the order will be required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and all other environmental statutes. The executive order directs the Transportation Department to continue and expand environmental stewardship for transportation projects, Mineta said.

Ruane said Bush’s action won’t cause more transportation projects to be built. He said it is designed to get environmentally sound projects off the drawing board and built quicker.

According to the Transportation Department, the total time required for a major new highway or airport to go from planning to opening averages 13 years for highways and 10 years for airports. A complex and often duplicative permitting process delays many projects, the department said in a press release.

“Too many transportation projects become mired for too long in the complex web of clearances required by federal and state law,” Mineta said. “This initiative is intended to make our transportation investments more efficient, helping to ease congestion and reduce pollution.”

Mineta, who Bush selected to chair the interagency task force, said the Transportation Department will develop a list of specific streamlining projects “to tackle immediately.” He has also asked for project nominations from governors, local authorities such as airport directors and metropolitan planning organizations and other transportation leaders.

Other task force members are the U.S. secretaries of agriculture, commerce, interior and defense as well as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, chair of the advisory council on historic preservation and chair of the council on environmental quality.

Click on the link in the right-hand column to read the president’s executive order.