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John Hennessy III,

Two Years Not Ten Years: Redesigning Infrastructure Approvals

Posted by Content Coordinator on Thursday, September 17th, 2015


Executive Summary

Rebuilding America’s decrepit infrastructure requires a new permitting system. Approvals today can take a decade, sometimes longer. Delay dramatically adds to costs, and prevents projects from getting off the drawing board. Delay prolongs bottlenecks which waste time and energy, causing America to lag behind global competitors. Obsolete facilities continue to spew carbon into the air and waste into our waters.

Red tape is not the price of good government; it is the enemy of good government. Time is money: America could modernize its infrastructure, at half the cost, while dramatically enhancing environmental benefits, with a two-year approval process. Our analysis shows that a six-year delay in starting construction on public projects costs the nation over $3.7 trillion, including the costs of prolonged inefficiencies and unnecessary pollution. This is more than double the $1.7 trillion needed through the end of this decade to modernize America’s infrastructure.

No one deliberately designed America’s infrastructure approvals system. It is an accident of legal accretion over the past 50 years. Environmental review was supposed to highlight major issues, in 300 pages or less on complex projects, so that officials could make an informed decision. As practiced today, environmental review often harms the environment. America’s antiquated power grid, for example, wastes the equivalent of 200 coal-burning power plants.

We propose a dramatic reduction of red tape so that infrastructure can be approved in two years or less, not, often, ten years. This can be accomplished by consolidating decisions within a simplified framework with deadlines and clear lines of accountability. The White House Council on Environmental Quality, for example, should have authority to draw lines on the scope of environmental review. To cut the Gordian knot of multiple permits, the White House needs authority to resolve disputes among bickering agencies.

The upside of rebuilding infrastructure is as rosy as the downside of delay is dire. America can enhance its competitiveness and achieve a greener footprint—with renewable power, modern transmission lines, new water treatment plants and pipes, updated ports, inland waterways, and air traffic control, and elimination of rail and highway bottlenecks. Upwards of two million jobs can be created. Public safety is enhanced. Economic and environmental benefits from modernized infrastructure will dramatically exceed the costs.

No one argues for leaving our nation’s infrastructure in its current state of disrepair—typically 50- to 100-years-old and dangerously decrepit. Law is supposed to be the framework for a free society, not an impediment. To rebuild its infrastructure, America must first rebuild its legal infrastructure so that vital projects can move forward.

Approximate costs of delay in rebuilding/upgrading transmission and distribution infrastructure:

  • Electricity losses: $25 billion x six years = $150 billion
  • Environmental losses: Six percent lost electricity (assuming all from coal plants) = 240 million tons of CO2 x $116 x six years = $167 billion
  • Disruption losses: 50 percent of $150 billion x six years = $450 billion
  • Increase in rebuilding costs from six-year delay: $173.6 billion x 30 percent = $52 billion
  • Total costs of six-year delay in rebuilding transmission and distribution networks: $819 billion

Download full version (PDF): Two Years Not Ten Years

About Common Good
Common Good is a nonpartisan reform coalition which believes individual responsibility, not mindless bureaucracy, must be the organizing principle of government. We present proposals to radically simplify government and restore the ability of officials and citizens alike to use common sense in daily decisions…Common Good was founded in 2002 by Philip K. Howard. Our Advisory Board includes leaders from many areas of society, including former Senators Bill Bradley and Alan Simpson, former Governor Tom Kean, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Salk Institute President William Brody. 

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