It is a wonderful month for infrastructure! On Aug. 10 this year, the U.S. Senate passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Along with $39 billion for public transit and $65 billion for broadband, this bill would also streamline the federal environmental impact assessment process. This included codifying a Trump-era executive order intended to speed up certain federal projects, as well as amending how the federal government applies the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
NEPA is the most influential piece of federal environmental policy in recent history. Former President Richard Nixon signed the NEPA into law in early 1970. Originally a piece of legislation meant to protect the environment, it has been perverted by proponents of a “not in my back yard” or NIMBY ideology to do the opposite. The actual text of the law is benign, merely requiring that federal agencies assess the environmental impacts of any projects that are undertaken by the government or that need a federal permit. Unfortunately, in the 50 years since the law’s enactment, the implementation of the act has spiraled into a web of obstruction and lawsuits that shocks many European regulators and planners alike.
While environmental groups like Earthjustice and the NRDC have criticized the move to streamline NEPA, this was absolutely the right decision. Current applications of environmental regulations are in and of themselves environmentally harmful, as they are often the cause of the death, extreme delay and extreme cost for the sorts of projects that we need most desperately, such as high-density housing or public transit.
Is it hyperbolic of me to say that an environmental protection law is harming the environment? A little, but let’s look at the facts.
The United States is one of the most expensive countries to build infrastructure. According to the Niskanen Center, the average environmental impact statement takes around 4.5 years to complete. Regularly over 1,000 pages, these documents cost development entities, both in the public and private sectors, billions of dollars in delays. Running on average around 600 pages, these documents have to be thorough because they are subjected to an odious legal gauntlet from homeowners associations and other aggrieved parties.
But what does that mean in terms of how much extra cold hard cash is spent on projects? As Vox journalist Jerusalem Desmas reported, a recent New York City Second Avenue subway expansion project cost taxpayers $2.6 billion per mile. San Francisco’s Central Subway Project took $920 million, and the Los Angeles Metro’s D Line spent a cool $800 million per mile.
A very similar project in Copenhagen? Practically free at $323 million per mile. In Italy and Spain, these types of projects can be as cheap as $160 million per mile. It is not out of the question to say that with European centralization of transportation authorities, we could get as much as 10 times the bang for our buck compared to the present day.
This obstruction is deadly. Every public transit project delayed is another pedestrian killed by a motorist. Every day delayed is another thousand tons of carbon spit into the atmosphere by bulky SUVs and pickups. So yes, of course, we should pay attention to the environmental impact of action. But, we should also consider the environmental cost of inaction: the cost of continuing in our car-centric, human-unfriendly method of development, continuing even when the laws of both capitalism and human nature tell us that we need to change.
The NEPA is still a largely beneficial bill, requiring the government to be deliberate in the actions they take and how they affect the environment. These modest changes, consolidating the environmental review process under the roof of only one agency instead of several, are absolutely in the spirit of the original bill: protecting the environment for future generations. This is also not the first time that problems with the NEPA have been identified. There are efforts going back to the Obama administration to amend the NEPA to better fit with our 21st-century climate change mitigation strategy. We have learned a whole lot about our environment since the 70s — our environmental regulation strategy should change as well.
It is a good sign that the Senate has passed an infrastructure bill that recognizes a lack of funding is not the only thing handicapping our nation’s transportation authorities. While imperfect, especially in how it continues to depend on fossil fuels, the bill helps break down a precedent of stagnation and endless delay. This bill is a workable regulatory solution for a regulatory problem.
I look forward to the House of Representatives hopefully passing this bill. Though smaller than many progressives had hoped for, there is so much good that this package can do for both present and future generations.
Demsas said it best in the above Vox article, “The goal is bigger than a single light rail line or a trolley; it’s about creating transit networks that allow people to navigate from home to work to play easily enough to give up their cars, thereby reducing pollution and congestion.”
To environmentalists opposed to this change: What does the status quo offer us? What does stagnation offer us? We can’t save the planet by shrinking ourselves in the present, by trying to reverse the growth that has already come. We can only save the planet by building denser, newer and greener cities, and we need an environmental review process to match the magnitude of that goal.
Julian Barnard is a Senior Opinion Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.