Reuters

It takes a long time to get big infrastructure investments through the process, but it doesn't have to.

Building major infrastructure projects takes a long time. Not just because they're big, but also because their potential impact on the environment is big. And according to a new report, the time it takes to get projects like bridges and highways through the environmental review process has grown longer and longer over time.

The chart below explains the situation all too clearly:

Source: America 2050

The National Environmental Policy Act was made law in 1969. In the 1970s, it took an average of 2.2 years for a highway project to complete the environmental impact statement required by NEPA. By 2011, the average time was 8.1 years.

NEPA itself has been ostracized by many over the years for bogging things down. But it's not simply the law that's to blame for these growing delays, according to this new report [PDF] from America 2050, the national infrastruc­ture planning and policy program of the Regional Plan Association. Rather, it's the uneven implementation practices of state and federal agencies that unnecessarily prevent the process from running as smoothly as it could.

According to the panel of experts America 2050 convened to discuss the subject, "many of these delays can be attributed to a lack of communication and consensus in the pre-NEPA planning stage, administrative process bottlenecks, project management failings, or a lack of capacity among the agencies involved in the process."

So, while discussions about expediting project delivery often begin with changing the NEPA law, in reality, rewriting NEPA would likely undermine environmental protections and fail to address root causes of delay. Instead, reforming the internal administrative policies, procedures, and practices currently in place to follow the NEPA law has the potential to shorten proj­ect delivery timelines while maintaining the strong environmen­tal protections that NEPA established. Even greater efficiency can be achieved by integrating environmental reviews with state and metropolitan planning requirements into a more cohesive project development process.

By streamlining the processes within agencies and better integrating planning and environmental reviews, delays on major projects can be largely avoided, according to the report. The most important advice in the report may be the most obvious: get more consensus from stakeholders early on in the planning process and there will be fewer delays caused by people upset with the design and its potential impacts.

Photo credit: Jianan Yu / Reuters

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