Analysis: Cutting Red Tape In Transportation Bill Means Cutting You Out Of The Environmental Review Process

By Christy Goldfuss

Stories about the recent House transportation bill will likely focus on what was not in the package: the Keystone XL pipeline and coal ash regulations.

However, environmentalists, right-to-know advocates, and community organizers need to take a close look at the section that discusses “Accelerated Decision Making.” For the first time, but likely not the last, conservative politicians in the House won a major victory in this small section of the bill by including their “streamlining” language, which simply means curtailing the public’s ability to comment on the impacts of transportation projects for communities — including on water, air, and public safety.

The legislation weakens one of our bedrock environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which guarantees public participation in reviewing government activities that affect the environment. It was signed into law by President Richard Nixon after passing the Senate by unanimous vote and the House by an overwhelming 372–15 vote.

First, the “Accelerated Decision Making” section of the transportation bill does what has never been done before — fining agencies up to 7% of their fiscal year budget if they do not meet established deadlines for environmental analyses. On the one hand, that means taking more money away from financially strapped agencies trying to accelerate their decision making process about the impacts of a project. On the other hand, it gives agencies an incentive to deny permits in order to avoid the fine. Neither of these impacts will lead to getting more transportation projects on line faster.

Next, this section of the law expands the type of projects that do not have to go through a public comment and environmental review process at all. These projects may get less than $5 million in federal funds, but they could still be large in scope. Regardless of the overall size, the public will not be given an opportunity to comment and the public will not have an opportunity to see how the highway, bridge, or other transportation project will impact their community.

Lastly, this is just the beginning of efforts by House Republicans to “streamline” policies that protect the American public’s health and safety. The House Committee on Natural Resources has been an incubator for such policy ideas, mostly around oil and gas development. For example, Rep. Doug Lamborn’s (R-CO), “Streamlining Permitting of American Energy Act” (H.R. 4383) purports to get more oil and gas drilling online by impeding citizens’ ability to exercise their legal right to raise concerns about proposed oil and gas leases by charging $5,000 to do so.

The Transportation Surface Transportation Act is just the first time that House Republicans have been successful in getting this language over the finish line.

Christy Goldfuss is the Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.