From the Front Lines of Infrastructure Week

As Infrastructure Week enters its third year, the effort has grown and gone national, transforming from a handful of events planned by a small group of organizations into a nationwide initiative. This week, more than 80 affiliated organizations will host over 40 events from Alaska to Washington, DC. It is safe to declare that no infrastructure policy issue will be left unaddressed this week.

On Tuesday, the NAM joined legal reform expert Philip Howard and his non-profit Common Good, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and the law firm Covington & Burling LLP for an expert-led discussion on Rethinking Infrastructure Approvals.

Mr. Howard is a change-agent, a reformer seeking to address broken governing structures, whether it’s our legal system or federal agencies charged with approving critically important infrastructure projects that will grow the economy and improve the environment. The Rule of Nobody, a book he authored last year, makes the case that big change needs to occur not only in Washington, but also in our culture. Authority, accountability and human responsibility are currently absent from the social equation.

These seem like simple principles, even slightly old-fashioned, but Howard makes the case that the rules-driven enterprise of the law and layers upon layers of red tape have taken over. The consequences are stymied progress, wasted resources and in some cases, even fatal when the box checking exercise of a nameless, faceless bureaucracy wins over thoughtful actions intended to save lives.

Today’s event was not a post-mortem of what has gone wrong with infrastructure approvals across the nation but a thoughtful assessment of what can be done under the current legal and legislative parameters to make things better. Refreshing.

US Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary Victor Mendez keynoted the event and highlighted that we don’t have the right infrastructure in place to absorb the nation’s changing demographics and anticipated population growth. He has been a champion for bringing efficiency to all DOT projects.

The event brought together leaders like Pat Foye, Executive Director of the Port of New York and New Jersey and Mark Tercek, President and CEO of the Nature Conservancy. The conservation I moderated was lively and solutions-based. During the discussion we were reminded that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was only seven pages when first conceived in 1969. Perhaps it’s time to go back to original intent.

Most instructive was a panel of international experts from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Canada. Australia and Canada provide first-rate models for taking stock of regulatory frameworks. Canada, in particular reformed its environmental review process in 2012 and provides fixed timelines for all federal environmental assessments, something missing in our process here in the United States.

If we can keep the groups that Common Good helped assemble and together work towards more permanent solutions that will put an end to uncertainty, endless lawsuits and wasted taxpayer dollars, perhaps the public will gain increased confidence in how infrastructure projects and other public services are delivered to achieve a greater good.

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