With conferees scheduled to meet next week to begin hammering out a new transportation reauthorization, all eyes are now turning back to the legislative details: what are key points of contention and where is there room for compromise?
We all know there will be a showdown over the Keystone XL pipeline. Let's not worry about that because there are no negotiations. Instead, let's look at another area that can and should be negotiated--the intersection between environmental backstops on transportation and the need to speed up infrastructure projects.
That was previewed, in part, on the House floor in mid-April as representatives debated the shell bill that paved the way to conference. House Transportation and Infrastructure Ranking Member Nick Rahall, D-W.V., and Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Ranking Member Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, took to the floor then to protest an amendment that copied over a set of environmental streamlining provisions from Mica's abandoned House GOP bill.
Proponents of the provisions say they would eliminate unnecessary delays, getting people to work faster on transportation projects. Opponents say they circumvent important environmental regulations. ("Congress is threatening to take a butcher knife to [the National Environmental Policy Act] in its transportation bill," Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in a blog post last week.)
We had a chance to speak with DeFazio, a conferee, about the provisions and he suggested that, while the streamlining provisions went too far in ceding regulatory power to states, there was some room to negotiate.
"There is basic agreement over some degree of streamlining," DeFazio said. "All of us are impatient with the amount of time it takes to move a project through all the hoops."
Are regulations really tripping up projects that badly? If so, what's a reasonable way to speed things along? Should there be categorical exclusions for certain types of projects? If so, what kinds? (DeFazio suggested, for example, excluding projects where streetcar tracks are put into paved roads, saying "that means we're going to have fewer cars on that road. Why would we have to spend a lot of time and money studying it?") What constitutes smart environmental streamlining? What's a step too far? How can conferees find a happy compromise?