Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal: How to Put Building Permits on a Fast Track

It can take 15 years to win approval for a new airport runway. No wonder U.S. infrastructure needs a lift.

December 4, 2016

President-elect Donald Trump has made investing in U.S. infrastructure a priority. This country urgently needs to build and repair roads, bridges, airports, pipelines and rail lines. But a huge roadblock is the federal permitting system. Even with a more business-friendly administration, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan won’t accomplish much unless Congress reforms the way public-works projects are approved.

America used to be the envy of the world in building great projects responsibly, efficiently and on time. The Pentagon was built in 16 months. The 1,500-mile Alaska-Canadian Highway, which passes through some of the world’s most rugged terrain, took about eight months. Today, infrastructure projects across America often require several years simply to get through the federal government’s pre-build permitting process. Consider a few examples.

New U.S. highway construction projects usually take between nine and 19 years from initial planning and permitting to completion of construction, according to a 2002 Government Accountability Office study. It will have taken 14 years to permit an expansion of Gross Reservoir in Colorado, and it took almost 20 years to permit the Kensington gold mine in Alaska.

It took four years to construct a new runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but it took 15 years to get the permits. Todd Hauptli of the American Association of Airport Executives bitterly joked to the Senate Commerce Committee last year, “It took longer to build that runway than the Great Pyramids of Egypt.”

These problems have been building for decades as the U.S. regulatory state has grown. But the Obama administration has made the situation much worse by politicizing the construction of America’s critical energy infrastructure.

It took Shell seven years and $7 billion to get White House permission to drill a single oil-exploration well off the coast of Alaska. Never mind that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act requires that resources in those waters “be made available for expeditious and orderly development.” This capricious permitting was part of why Shell halted its operations in Alaska, stranding enormous oil and gas resources and killing thousands of potential jobs.

The Keystone XL pipeline languished in permitting purgatory for almost the entire two terms of the Obama administration before the president finally killed it in 2015. Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, called the president’s actions a “cynical manipulation of the approval process.” President Obama also recently halted the Dakota Access pipeline, though in September a federal courtdetermined that the project complied with arduous permitting, legal and consultation requirements.

Mr. Trump is set to reverse the Obama administration’s abysmal permitting record, but Congress also has a responsibility. Last year I introduced the Regulations Endanger Democracy Act, or RED Tape Act, which would cap federal regulations with a simple one-in-one-out rule. When an agency issues a new regulation, it must repeal an old one. (Mr. Trump has suggested removing two for every one that is added.) Even though the idea has been successfully implemented in Canada and the United Kingdom, not a single Senate Democrat voted for it, and the legislation died.

Another bill I wrote would expedite federal permitting to repair or rebuild thousands of crumbling bridges across our country, but it received only three Democratic votes on the Senate floor. Once again my colleagues across the aisle prevented this reform from being implemented.

After Congress convenes in January, I will introduce the Rebuild America Now Act. It would establish strict time limits so that if permits aren’t approved or denied for good cause within a specified time, then the project is deemed approved. The law also creates a one-stop shop for environmental reviews and permitting to ensure that projects don’t get bogged down by agencies pursuing different agendas. Agencies would be required to abide by the RED Tape Act, a version of which would be part of the new law.

Having lost the election, progressives are already preparing litigation and protests to stop American infrastructure and energy projects. My bill would limit sue-and-settle practices that abuse the judicial system, as well as stopping groups that oppose economic development from needlessly delaying or killing much-needed projects. It would also have a builder’s and worker’s bill of rights, which would include timely permitting decisions and transparency in agency decision-making to spell out exactly why a permit is denied.

President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus in 2009 wrecked the country’s balance sheet while doing little to spur economic growth. An infrastructure bill that fails to reform dysfunctional permitting runs a similar risk. These reforms will prevent billions of dollars from getting wasted in red tape and litigation, making it easier to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure.