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Governors Meeting: Infrastructure and Urban Policy Development

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Remarks As Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao

Governors Meeting: Infrastructure and Urban Policy Development
World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
Davos, Switzerland
Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Thank you, Alan.

I’m pleased to have this opportunity to share some of the best practices being developed in the United States to mitigate the risks involved in government permitting delays.

Delays are becoming all too common place, as government permitting regulations at all levels have grown more complex, duplicative and burdensome.

Here’s some context:

In the 1930s, it took 5 years to complete the Hoover Dam, one of the most significant infrastructure projects in U.S. history. By contrast, it recently took nearly 30 years to get approval to replace the Bonner Bridge – now the Marc Basnight Bridge—in the state of North Carolina.  It is the only roadway access that surrounding communities have for schools, medical care, and storm evacuation. 

The environmental review process for this bridge alone took over 19 years for the government to complete. Then, several years were lost during a lawsuit, which included a record of over 92,000 pages.  The bridge has now been open for traffic for 10 months.  But 30 years is an unacceptably long time to make the people in these communities wait for such critical infrastructure.

To address these delays, this Administration has proposed a rule to modernize and accelerate environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, commonly known as NEPA.  It will enable infrastructure to be built in a timely, efficient, and affordable manner, while also safeguarding the environment.

  • The proposed rule would establish time limits of 2 years for completion of environmental impact statements and 1 year for completion of environmental assessments.
  • The proposal specifies page limits, promotes information sharing through modern technology, and better defines environmental effects and other key terms.
  • The proposed rule would reduce unnecessary burdens and delays for environmental reviews.
  • Agencies would be allowed to establish procedures for adopting another agency’s determinations to increase efficiency.
  • The proposed rule would improve collaboration with State, local, and tribal governments.
  • Regulations guiding NEPA processes have not been comprehensively updated in over 40 years.
  • Since 1978, the Council on Environmental Quality has made only one limited substantive amendment to the regulations, in 1986.
  • The time taken to complete an environmental impact statement is now almost 5 years on average, and for highways has averaged over 7 years.
  • Securing approval for roads, bridges, airports, railways, and waterways has been significantly hindered under the existing regulations.

For the U.S. Department of Transportation, these changes couldn’t come at a better time.  Simple, small projects can take up to a year to review.  But larger projects can take many take years to get through government reviews – up to 20 years or more.

The Department is also vigorously implementing the President’s “One Federal Decision” initiative, which was announced in August 2018.  In fact, all relevant departments are working on a new process to handle the permitting of complicated, multi-agency projects within a new expedited time line.  This means less paperwork, and more timely improvements that will better protect the environment and our quality of life.

Taken together, these initiatives will help reduce the risks that come with delays in government approvals.  Thank you for letting me share them today.