OPINION: Slow Railroad Approvals Highlight Federal Permitting Woes


Nick Zaiac R Street Institute
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It’s been a busy week for those following the resurgence of privately-funded passenger rail in America. Richard Branson’s Virgin Group bought into Miami’s Brightline and will rebrand it as Virgin Trains USA. New rules from the Federal Railroad Administration will allow American railroads to import modern European trains.

But the biggest news of all might have come from Texas, where the Central Japan Railway announced it plans to break ground next year on a new high-speed rail line — the Texas Central — between Dallas and Houston.

At the moment, however, the Texas Central sits in bureaucratic purgatory as it awaits FRA approval of the project’s environmental review. Concrete cannot be poured until the agency signs off on the final permits, and how long approval will take is anyone’s guess.

Long delays are common in infrastructure development, slowing the construction of new railroads, bridges, roads and other projects that support growing regions. There are lots of reasons infrastructure projects can be delayed: supply chain disruptions happen, weather generates lost work days and specialized equipment breaks. But permitting delays are one factor entirely within the government’s control. Harmonizing permitting time limits across federal and state agencies would be one positive step toward avoiding the prolonged wait that projects like the Texas Central have experienced.

Building the infrastructure to accommodate the many workers who flock to prospering areas around the globe, including Texas, takes time. Projects must wait for approvals from various levels of government before any shovels can start digging. As years drag on, costs and delays compound, sometimes putting projects in jeopardy. Meanwhile, local residents miss out on years of using a new bridge, rail line or other structure.

Long delays associated with environmental review in particular are a problem regardless of the entity building the project or the level of government doing the regulating. These delays are one of the reasons why Section 41 of the federal Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST-41) from a few years ago included provisions that set up an interagency permitting council to speed approvals of federal permits for infrastructure projects. This process allows various reviews to happen at the same time, thereby speeding up approval to some degree.

Yet while expedited permitting via interagency councils and similar state entities can help staunch the bleeding, it does not get to the root problem: long waits for individual permits. That is why the federal interagency council set a window of 90 days for an agency to approve a permit, after which the agency holding up the process must report why permit review took so long and provide a plan to complete the review in a timely fashion. This 90-day standard should be extended to cover all federal, state and municipal infrastructure permits. Agency heads could be held accountable for ensuring permitting times are met so that they do not slow down the process writ large.

With a faster, more reliable review process, more projects will become viable at earlier points in time, allowing highways and railroads to be built before existing roads are overwhelmed by new development. A faster permitting saves time and money, both before and after government review takes place. Such a process would thus make development a cheaper, less-onerous ordeal for companies seeking to build new, customer-funded structures at a time when federal and state dollars for new projects is increasingly scarce.

When infrastructure projects sit idle while waiting for approval, citizens pay the price. Deliveries are late. Appointments are missed. Families sit in traffic that could be alleviated when the children are 5 rather than 15. The economies of towns and cities integrates more slowly over time, and these locales end up missing out on job and wage growth. And if approvals continue to drag on for years, global capital will find infrastructure elsewhere to finance.

Yet with more reliable, streamlined permitting times, we can expect more projects like the one in Texas to come along. The choice is with policymakers. The cost of change, in angry letters and phone calls, is just like that of any other change in bureaucratic procedure. The cost of refusing to act, however, comes in the form of time and money wasted as concrete is not poured, steel is not erected and trips are not taken.

Nick Zaiac (@NickZaiac) is a fellow in Commercial Freedom at the nonprofit R Street Institute, where his portfolio includes transportation, land use and freight issues.

 The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.