Common Good…mused Common Good chair Philip Howard, in a telephone interview. “All these people go clashing headlong, without any order and without any clears lines of authority to make decisions. You get a lot of heat and noise and no action.”

Common Good has proposed legislation that acts to reduce permitting times. According to a study the group released in 2015, “a six-year delay in starting construction on public projects costs the nation over $3.7 trillion, including the costs of prolonged inefficiencies and unnecessary pollution. This is more than double the $1.7 trillion needed through the end of this decade to modernize America’s infrastructure.”

Key, Howard said, is the ability of the federal government to preempt state and local permitting if these extend past a mandatory deadline, which would be tied to the timetable the federal regulatory authorities take.

“Otherwise, the NIMBY [Not in My Back Yard] interest blocks something that’s important for society as a whole,” he said.

Philip Howard – Common Good
Philip Howard – Common Good

Howard cited the case of CSX attempting to build a second rail line through Washington DC, designed to lessen rail congestion. The rail company owned the property and complied with all the rules and regulations. “But the city of Washington used the fact that [CSX] had to go through a formal pro forma process to extort all kinds of promises that made no sense,” Howard said. “It’s empowering the people who want to drag their heels.”

That’s because, the Common Good report maintained, “permitting decisions are balkanized among dozens of different departments, at different levels of government. Environmental review has become a litigation quagmire, as supporters and opponents argue over thousands of pages of details. Opponents must be mollified—often by monetary payments having little to do with environmental effects of the project.”

These kinds of blockages can mean that necessary infrastructure doesn’t get built, even when funding is in hand. Howard cited the stimulus package that was passed after the financial crisis in 2008. “We had the money in 2009, and we didn’t use most of it for infrastructure because of the bureaucratic obstacles,” he said.

But bureaucratic delays and regulations cause price jumps of necessary infrastructure projects, which in turn diminish their attractiveness. Common Good cited New York State’s 19th Century “Scaffolding Law,” which requires a heightened level of general liability insurance on construction projects. The group estimated this alone will raise costs of the proposed Gateway Tunnel project by $180 million to $300 million.

Those on the left need to be convinced that long, drawn-out permitting isn’t a utopian solution to protecting the environment, while skeptics on the right need to be nudged to do something about the country’s aging infrastructure.

“There’s an obvious deal to be made here,” Howard believes. Create environmental reviews that can be finished in a year instead of five to ten years and get more to sign off on the proposition that it isn’t a waste of money to build the infrastructure that the country sorely needs.

“Every big infrastructure is political,” Howard said. “But if you have lines of authority to make decisions, then decisions get made. Because [decision-making] goes on forever, it gives much too much power to whoever is opposed to it.”