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EDITORIAL: Paring the red tape limiting infrastructure projects

Since the onset of the Trump administration, Beltway Democrats and Republicans have talked a lot about infrastructure improvements as an area of potential bipartisan compromise. So far, however, it’s been just that: talk. Perhaps an announcement last week from the president will finally jump-start such a bill.

“America’s most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process,” Donald Trump said last Thursday. “The builders are not happy. Nobody is happy. It takes 20 years. It takes 30 years. It takes numbers that nobody would even believe.”

Mr. Trump is not exaggerating. It took one year to build the Empire State Building, four years to build the Golden Gate Bridge and six years to complete the Hoover Dam. Today, thanks to myriad different permitting requirements and the inevitable lawsuits, it would be a miracle if the feds could lay down a 10-mile stretch of highway without long delays. As the president pointed out, it took more than two decades to complete reviews for a new runway at the Seattle airport.

Mr. Trump’s proposal would amend regulations governing the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates that federal agencies compile reviews to determine how projects will affect the environment. The White House notes that the average environmental review takes 4.5 years and typically runs past 600 pages. The president envisions a two-year time limit for major reviews and a one-year limit for smaller projects. The plan would also require increased collaboration when multiple agencies are involved.

Currently, “Each agency has to do a separate review, and in most cases, one had to finish a review before another one could start it,” notes Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation researcher for the Reason Foundation. Mr. Feigenbaum also points out that the current process invites excessive litigation. Activist groups “can try to run out the clock for years by filing ridiculous lawsuits that have nothing to do with environmental protection.”

Predictably, some extreme greens and Democrats argue the administration is ignoring global warming while trying to scuttle environmental protections in order to sate evil capitalists and polluters. That’s absurd. Streamlining the process to improve efficiencies and lower costs is simple common sense and can be done in concert with reasonable environmental analysis.

Reports of America’s “crumbling” infrastructure may be exaggerated, but the nation no doubt has a host of important work that needs to be done to enhance and maintain its transportation networks. The current process, Mr. Trump noted correctly, is a “dysfunctional bureaucratic system” that creates “massive obstructions.” Any effort to pare back the endless rolls of red tape deserves support.

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