Fischer, the senior U.S. senator from Nebraska, is chairman of the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security. Chao is U.S. secretary of transportation.
Infrastructure is America’s backbone. It is what keeps the nation moving every day while supporting our economy and national security.
Unfortunately, our infrastructure is aging rapidly, and we must get to work on rebuilding and revitalizing it for the future. The maintenance and expansion of our infrastructure are key factors in enhancing our country’s competitiveness and creating jobs and opportunities for others.
That is why President Donald Trump announced a blueprint in May for a national infrastructure plan, spurring a nationwide discussion about how to regulate, fund and maintain our transportation system moving forward.
Today, we are continuing this critical conversation with Nebraskans. In Omaha, we will meet with representatives from the Nebraska Department of Transportation, leaders from the trucking, rail and aviation industries, and the construction companies that will build our infrastructure.
We look forward to hearing their ideas about how we can improve the regulatory process and move projects forward at a faster rate. It is important to engage local communities in how we revitalize our infrastructure because transportation must meet the needs of the people it serves.
With today’s burdensome permitting and review processes, vital projects can sometimes take years, even decades, to complete. That does not work for our communities, and we have to do better.
To jump-start this effort, the president recently signed an executive order to establish discipline and accountability in reviewing and permitting infrastructure projects. No longer will sponsors of major infrastructure projects be forced to spend time and money navigating a complex web of permitting and environmental reviews within multiple federal agencies.
Instead, the government will speak with one voice through “one federal decision.” This establishes one lead federal agency that will work with all other federal agencies to expedite permitting decisions and environmental reviews.
All required federal permits must be issued within 90 days after a “record of decision” is signed. It also establishes a goal of no more than two years for processing environmental documents for major infrastructure projects. This will streamline our building process and help projects get off the ground quicker.
A key piece of the president’s infrastructure plan is to empower states and local communities to get involved with how their transportation projects are planned, funded and built. This is important because every community has different transportation needs — there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Here in Nebraska, we see those differences highlighted between urban and rural communities, so it is important for communities to take an active role.
Rural communities are especially significant because they are the bread and butter of our nation. The U.S. Department of Transportation is putting a renewed emphasis on rural projects and infrastructure.
Earlier this summer, the department announced its “Infrastructure for Rebuilding America” grants program, which will make $1.5 billion in discretionary grants available. This program also sets aside at least one-quarter of its funding for rural projects, which is a good start for rural projects across the country and something Nebraska can utilize.
In 2015, Congress passed a critical tool to address our country’s infrastructure needs: the “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation,” or FAST Act. The FAST Act was the first long-term highway bill in more than a decade passed to help fund transportation. A new program within the bill offers states the flexibility to make critical investments that best meet their specific geographic and infrastructure needs. The program funnels transportation dollars to states and lets them decide how to use the money.
During a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing earlier this year, we discussed commonsense solutions to our infrastructure challenges. The FAST Act, the president’s infrastructure initiative and the new executive order on permitting reform are innovative solutions to addressing our country’s infrastructure needs.
We are hopeful today’s discussions will act as a springboard to action so we can get the word out about these new programs and policies and get America building again.
This opinion-editorial was originally published August 22, 2017 in the Omaha World Herald.