President Bush has issued an executive order that directs federal agencies to accelerate environmental reviews of major transportation projects, but says that any such expediting should follow existing laws.

The directive, issued on Sept. 18, says that federal agencies should take steps to carry out environmental reviews of transportation projects "in a timely and environmentally responsible manner."

(Photo courtesy of White House)

It also specifies that the secretary of transportation should develop "a list of high-priority transportation infrastructure projects" that should get accelerated reviews. The order says that for those projects, "agencies shall to the maximum extent practicable expedite their reviews for relevant permits or other approvals, and take related actions as necessary, consistent with available resources and applicable laws, including those relating to safety, public health and environmental protection."

In addition, the order calls for setting up a "Transportation Infrastructure Streamlining Task Force" within the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to help agencies speed reviews or permits and "identify and promote policies" to accelerate the process--but again notes that such actions should comply with environmental and other statutes.

Streamlining has been a nagging issue for the construction industry for many months. Industry and state transportation officials have complained that environmental streamlining provisions in the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century haven't been effectively implemented by DOT. On another front, early last year, when air traffic congestion was a major problem, aviation and airport officials highlighted the long time it can take to get new runway projects approved.

The Bush order was issued less than 24 hours before a scheduled Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on "project delivery and environmental stewardship." In opening the hearing, Committee Chairman James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) noted the timing of the order and said, "As I read the order, it might have the potential to be a step forward....The value of the order depends on how it is carried out."

The Associated General Contractors welcomed the Bush order, but still is looking to codify streamlining in law. Paul Diederich, chairman of the Associated General Contractors' highway division, told a Sept. 19 House hearing on proposals for the bill to succeed TEA-21 that the Bush directive "is a solid step towards meaningful statutory environmental streamlining in next year's reauthorization of TEA-21."

DOT Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said, "Too many transportation projects become mired for too long in the complex web of clearances required by federal and state law." He said for big highway projects, the median time for processing environmental documents was four-and-a-half years. For runways, environmental reviews average more than three years.

Mineta says he is seeking projects for the streamlining list "to tackle immediately." He has asked governors, airport directors, local planning organizations and others to recommend candidate projects.

With the executive order, DOT is withdrawing May 2000 proposed planning and environmental regulations, which were strongly criticized by state transportation and industry officials.

Environmentalists told the Senate committee they are concerned about the possibility that various streamlining proposals could weaken the National Environmental Policy Act. It is NEPA that requires environmental impact statements for major infrastructure projects.

Melody Flowers, coordinator of the Sierra Club's National Challenge to Sprawl Campaign, says,"We're going to be concerned any time there are attempts or potential attempts to weaken environmental reviews." But she adds, "It's hard to tell what impact [the executive order] would have."

Flowers says, "I think the key for us is that if this symbolizes a broad attack on environmental regulations then we're going to be adamantly opposed to it." But she adds, "The order itself is too vague to draw any conclusions."