Highway Robbery: Shutdown Holding Up Transportation Projects

While I disagree with most of the awful proposals about so-called “streamlining” of transportation project reviews from Congress, I’ve always said there are some good ideas for reducing project-delivery times. One is better long-range planning and scenario-building so community members actually see how a project fits into the future of their region. Another is using ever-improving techniques and technology to boost public involvement with project development.

Another idea which I’ve seen supported elsewhere is to invest in more reviewing overhead and staff at the agencies charged with performing these important duties. I’ve mentioned this in reports I’ve co-authored (Sierra Club-NRDC report pdf here), debates I’ve engaged in and Congressional testimony.

I’m thankful that other analysts have suggested this as well, from a Regional Plan Association report (pdf here) which found that projects can be held up due to “administrative bottlenecks and outdated procedures within agencies that have insufficient staff capacity and training to efficiently complete environmental studies or reviews” to a Cambridge Systematics report (pdf here) which included the recommendation that policymakers and implementers “take fuller advantage of provisions which permit recipients to supplement staff at Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)  Division offices and/or Resource Agency field offices, to expedite high-priority projects for environmental reviews…”

Until now, the most memorable validation I’ve heard of this point came from former Caltrans Director Will Kempton at a conference a couple of years ago. When I told him about the problem, he nodded and said he once brought up a delayed project review with an official at a natural resource agency and the official reached over and pointed to some paper near the bottom of an incredibly overstuffed inbox and asked “You mean this one?”

And today a rather unexpected voice from the transportation world pointed to another harmful consequence of the government shutdown: Reduced staffing at reviewing agencies is holding up transportation projects. As ace Politico reporter Adam Snider wrote today:

“The approval process for transportation projects is encountering major obstacles,” Pete Ruane, president and CEO of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said at a press conference organized by Senate EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer.

A third of DOT’s total staff has been furloughed, and other workers are still on the job thanks to the Highway Trust Fund that pays for road, bridge and transit projects. But DOT workers aren’t the only ones involved in the process, and many of their colleagues at other agencies aren’t working through the shutdown.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service are all agencies that play a vital role in reviewing and approving transportation projects, Ruane said. All have been affected by the shutdown.

A Federal Highway Administration list, last updated in August, shows 129 projects in 35 states that were in the process of getting an environmental impact statement, a requirement for federal funding. But with more than 90 percent of the EPA’s staff furloughed, those reviews have stopped, Ruane said.

Some of the projects halted are right in Congress’s back yard, including the 14th Street bridge that connects the District of Columbia to Virginia and the Tri-County Parkway that aims to lighten road congestion in Northern Virginia.

With its shutdown holdup, the House of Representatives is amassing a lot of damaging effects on the real world, as my colleague Scott Slesinger is reporting on his blog. You can add holding up transportation projects to their pile of loot.