Private Sector Leaders Encourage States to Simplify Government Approvals to Boost Infrastructure

The entrance to Arlington National Cemetary is visible from the Lincoln Memorial as restoration work continues on Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River, Tuesday, July 2, 2019, in Washington.

The entrance to Arlington National Cemetary is visible from the Lincoln Memorial as restoration work continues on Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River, Tuesday, July 2, 2019, in Washington. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

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Business executives told attendees at the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C. that a simplified permitting process would encourage the private sector to engage on infrastructure projects.

WASHINGTON - Streamlining the permitting process is a key step states can take to encourage the private sector to back infrastructure projects, business executives told the nation’s governors.

“The fastest way to do it is to require there be a single approval process or a single permitting process so you can’t get lost across multiple agencies,” said Doug Peterson, president and CEO S&P Global.

Peterson was among the executives who addressed state leaders gathered at the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington D.C. on Saturday.

The question of how to pay for major, and often expensive, infrastructure projects has increasingly become an area of concern for governors as federal government investment has dwindled. States are increasingly turning to public-private partnerships as a way to finance large-scale projects.

States and local governments spent about $342 billion on infrastructure projects in 2017, accounting for about three-quarters of all infrastructure spending in the United States, according to the Brookings Institution. The amount of money the federal government spends on infrastructure declined from $101 billion to $98 billion between 2007 and 2017.

Dominion Energy, a Virginia-based power and energy company, has committed to spending $26 billion in private investments over the next five years, with a focus on emerging technologies. But to do that, the company needs legislative and regulatory cooperation in place that can make it easier to partner up, said Diane Leopold, Dominion’s vice president told lawmakers.

“Nobody is looking for any kind of rubber stamp. But a clear, consistent, timely process is essential,” she said. “If we are going to invest $26 billion, to be able to do that and finance it, it is critical there is that clear process to be able to go through.”

Environmental groups have raised questions about recent efforts at the federal level to streamline permitting, particularly through the Environmental Protection Agency, saying they could leave communities vulnerable to pollution. State leaders have also chafed at Trump administration moves to cut them out of some permitting decisions, such as an order signed by President Trump in April that could reduce states power to block pipelines. 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, NGA’s chairman, has focused on infrastructure as a top priority this year. In recent years, governors and state leaders have come to Washington to push the Trump administration and Congress to invest in infrastructure. But Democrats and Republicans haven’t agreed on what that should look like and are unlikely to come to any consensus in an election year.  

New York state has $275 billion in upcoming infrastructure projects, ranging from a new LaGuardia Airport to backing from rural broadband expansion, said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as he addressed governor’s at the NGA meeting.

These projects are “essential for economic survival,” Cuomo said. “If the federal government will not step up and fund them then the state must.”

Building and maintaining a transportation network infrastructure plays an important role in growing economic development, business executives told state lawmakers. When Amazon is looking to expand its facilities, infrastructure and accessibility are two factors executives evaluate when making decisions about where to locate, said Sarah Rhoads, the vice president Amazon Global Air.

Delegating one agency in the state to have knowledge of all assets and infrastructure projects in the pipeline would also be helpful for companies interested in financing projects, Peterson said. Engaging a company on a series of infrastructure projects could lead to savings over piecemeal completion.

As an example, Peterson cited the 2014 decision by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to engage in a public-private partnership to repair and maintain the state’s 558 bridges.

“They could have never done that if they didn’t have the inventory of assets,” Peterson said.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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