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The president has promised to move ahead with “massive permit reform.” But some of his actions may be having the “exact opposite result of what seems to have been intended.”
WASHINGTON — President Trump pledged on Friday that his administration would take action to ease federal permitting processes that state and local governments have to go through when undertaking infrastructure projects, like constructing roads and bridges.
But streamlining efforts the president described mirror provisions in existing law. And this is raising questions about whether the White House is running the risk of creating redundancies and confusion by pushing ahead with new infrastructure permitting initiatives, without first fully implementing and assessing those that are already on the books.
Complicating matters further: Trump has yet to fill positions in his administration that would play a central role in making the types of permitting changes he is advocating for.
U.S. Sens. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, sent the president a letter, dated June 8, saying they were concerned his administration is not “making use of important tools Congress has given it” when it comes to infrastructure permitting.
The letter went on to say that an executive order Trump issued in January, aimed at expediting environmental reviews and approvals for projects, appears to duplicate or conflict with provisions in the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act of 2015, also called the FAST Act.
“We have heard from numerous stakeholders that the executive order is confusing and makes the permitting process even more complex—the exact opposite result of what seems to have been intended,” the senators wrote in their letter to the president.
Trump said Friday during a speech at the Department of Transportation that his administration would carry out “massive permit reform” that would shift greater control to cities and states.
“Washington has spent decades building a dense thicket of rules, regulations and red tape,” he told an audience that included state and local leaders.
“We will get rid of the redundancy and duplication that wastes your time and your money,” the president added. “Our goal is to give you one point of contact to deliver one decision, yes or no, for the entire federal government, and to deliver that decision quickly.”
The president promised a new council that would help project managers navigate the bureaucracy involved in getting federal approvals for infrastructure projects.
“This council will make sure that every federal agency that is consistently delaying projects by missing deadlines will face tough, new penalties,” Trump declared.
He said the council would set up a new online dashboard where approvals for projects could be tracked. There is already a federal permitting dashboard for infrastructure projects up and running online and it wasn’t immediately clear how the one Trump described would differ from it.
The president also said a new office would be established within the White House Council on Environmental Quality to combat inefficiencies, clarify lines of authority and pare down procedures related to infrastructure project approvals.
Deron Lovaas, a senior policy adviser with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has worked on infrastructure permitting issues off and on for about 15 years, said much of what Trump discussed on Friday is not new.
“Unless I missed something, everything he talked about is already in MAP-21, the FAST Act, or was done independently by the Obama administration,” he said by phone. MAP-21 is transportation legislation passed in 2012 that is formally known as the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. “This stuff, it’s already happening.”
“From 2012 on, Congress has enacted more project streamlining provisions than they’ve ever enacted,” Lovaas added. “So there’s a whole bunch of law on the books that the administration needs to implement, needs to execute… I don’t know if they’re doing it.”
He pointed out, for instance, that the idea of a “one-stop shop” for those seeking permits is included in the FAST Act and penalties akin to the ones Trump described in MAP-21.
Congress, Lovaas said, has been “derelict in its duty” when it comes to overseeing how the executive branch and agencies are putting these sorts of measures into effect. “I have heartburn,” he added, “that the new guard might want to pile on a whole bunch of new provisions and initiatives as opposed to taking a look at what is already in place.”
Lovaas explained that the Natural Resources Defense Council has not agreed with all of the streamlining provisions that have been enacted in recent years. He said that he’d like to see more information about the results of those measures that have been implemented, like expanded exclusions for projects from certain environmental reviews.
“I would like to know and we would like to know what the effects have been and have there been unintended consequences,” he added.
A main topic addressed in the letter that Portman and McCaskill sent to Trump is the so-called Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, which was created under Title 41 of the FAST Act and is tasked with improving federal infrastructure permitting.
The senators note that Trump’s executive order on environmental reviews directs the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality to identify high priority infrastructure projects and to coordinate with agencies to clarify permitting deadlines for these projects.
As of Friday, Trump had not nominated anyone to the CEQ chairman position, according to a database tracking executive branch nominations that is maintained by The Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization.
In the meantime, Mary Neumayr, the council's chief of staff, is serving as its acting chair.
The lawmakers point out that the FAST Act calls for duties like those Trump assigns in his executive order to the CEQ chairman to be handled by the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council and its executive director—another position that the president has yet to fill.
The vacant leadership post at the Steering Council, the senators suggested was “significantly impairing” its ability “to achieve its mission of greater coordination across government.”
“We have heard from a number of entities,” they wrote, “that a lack of clear leadership from the top has hampered cross-agency efforts and allowed permit siloing to continue.”
On Friday, Trump took swipes at consultants who he said are profiting off of byzantine federal permitting processes. “You can’t do anything without hiring them, paying them a tremendous amount of money, having them write up this nonsense, you can’t get approvals,” he said.
Lovaas found some common ground with the president on this front.
He said that he believed there are perverse incentives—that don’t necessarily have to do with environmental reviews—for engineers and consultants to expand timeframes and fatten document page counts for infrastructure projects. “I do think that is an issue,” Lovaas said.
“I realize that the process isn’t perfect and there’s room for improvement,” he added. “And that can be addressed by using tools that are in current law.”
This post has been updated to note that Mary Neumayr is serving as the acting chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.