Trump's Plan to Elim­i­nate Red Tape on In­fra­struc­ture Projects Not What it Seems

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In a move that reeks of des­per­a­tion – as the Pres­i­dent is fi­nally re­al­iz­ing that even his own party is aban­don­ing him on key pol­icy mat­ters – on Au­gust 16, Trump an­nounced sweep­ing changes to process and pol­icy that he claims will ac­cel­er­ate in­fra­struc­ture projects across the United States. But, at the same time, his pro­posed bud­get would cut in­fra­struc­ture fund­ing.

Hav­ing made many prom­ises to do some­thing about the much-needed work on the bridges, roads and rail­ways that make up the coun­try’s crit­i­cal trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture, Trump has fi­nally made his move – or at least that is what he wants his sup­port­ers to think. In typ­i­cal Trump fash­ion, it was quick and not com­pletely thought through – though per­haps for once his heart was in the right place: He ac­knowl­edged that red tape in the reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment is a ma­jor rea­son why ma­jor gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions take so long to be com­plied with.

The pur­ported main in­tent of Trump’s new pol­icy is to stream­line what the Pres­i­dent con­sid­ers to be the red tape of the per­mit process.

• Step 1 of that pol­icy is to re­quire what Trump calls a “one fed­eral de­ci­sion pol­icy.” This al­lows for one fed­eral agency to over­see en­vi­ron­men­tal and any other de­ci­sions re­lated to spe­cific in­fra­struc­ture projects, with con­sul­ta­tion from oth­ers but with­out re­quir­ing any other agency’s sign-off. This is a pos­i­tive, with sin­gle-agency lead­er­ship be­ing em­pow­ered to make things hap­pen. There are a few is­sues that will need to be worked out as it is im­ple­mented, since there are ex­ist­ing laws in place that re­quire some agen­cies to do an anal­y­sis and reg­u­late the specifics of var­i­ous projects. One such spe­cific is that the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency has a le­gal man­date to eval­u­ate the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of work that could cause en­vi­ron­men­tal harm to en­dan­gered species or to the pub­lic.

• Step 2 of the pol­icy is to elim­i­nate the Fed­eral Flood Risk Man­age­ment Stan­dard for build­ing in­fra­struc­ture. That stan­dard, put in place by for­mer

pres­i­dent Barack Obama as a 2015 Ex­ec­u­tive Order, re­quires fed­eral reg­u­la­tors to ac­count for cli­mate-change con­cerns and sea-level rise as part of the in­fra­struc­ture ap­proval process for pub­lic projects. In­stead of be­ing a drag on the process, by re­quir­ing months or even years of work to com­plete that anal­y­sis, the stan­dard al­lows for one of three op­tions to be used. Op­tion (a) is to use the best avail­able cli­mate-change sci­ence and mod­els to es­ti­mate what should be done for a spe­cific project. Op­tion (b) is to re­quire that roads and rail­ways be con­structed two feet above the na­tional 100-year flood el­e­va­tion stan­dard, with cer­tain crit­i­cal struc­tures, like hos­pi­tals, to be built three feet higher. Sim­pler still is op­tion (c), which al­lows in­fra­struc­ture to be built to sup­port the es­ti­mated 500year flood­plain rules.

Elim­i­nat­ing all three op­tions would seem stronger than nec­es­sary to deal with what Trump and his team likely saw as yet an­other po­ten­tial source of de­lay. It is in­stead far more likely that the White House felt that any­thing that in­cludes the “cli­mate change” warn­ing needs to be dropped from the lex­i­con. One can hope that there was no in­tent, as a num­ber of crit­ics have al­leged, to al­low new roads, bridges, rail­ways, hos­pi­tals and other crit­i­cal struc­tures to be built in ar­eas that ei­ther are or will likely be­come flood­plains in the near or in­ter­me­di­ate fu­ture. With many eyes still fo­cused on the project re­view process, sound minds would likely use con­sid­er­a­tions not un­like those that were in­cluded in the 2015 Ex­ec­u­tive Order but with­out nam­ing that which the White House would not like to name “cli­mate change.” If that care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion is done, then the em­pow­er­ment of in­di­vid­ual agen­cies and the elim­i­na­tion of the for­mal­ity of the flood­plain rule might achieve what Trump claims to be try­ing to do: speed up the process for im­ple­ment­ing new in­fra­struc­ture projects at the fed­eral level.

One should con­sider that Amer­ica’s in­fra­struc­ture prob­lems are not so much about not be­ing able to con­struct new projects (due to a com­plex and lengthy per­mit process) but about a sim­ple lack of fund­ing to main­tain the ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture. Re­pair­ing a bridge, repaving a road or re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing a de­te­ri­o­rated sewer line is only a mat­ter of fund­ing – not about get­ting past red tape.

As Trump has pointed out in the past, Amer­ica seems more than will­ing to spend tril­lions of dol­lars wag­ing sense­less wars abroad but can’t seem to find the money to re­pair its own in­fra­struc­ture at home. The rea­son for this is that it is much eas­ier for money to be stolen from the mil­i­tary, where there is much less over­sight. The Pen­tagon already re­fuses to ac­count for $10 tril­lion in tax­pay­ers’ money, and this lack of ac­count­abil­ity has not im­proved since Trump as­sumed power. If any­thing, Trump has made it worse by in­creas­ing the mil­i­tary’s bud­get with­out im­pos­ing greater ac­count­abil­ity.

In­stead of di­vert­ing at­ten­tion away from the real is­sues with in­ef­fec­tive mea­sures, now would be a good time to face re­al­ity and stop try­ing to sup­port a crum­bling em­pire on bor­rowed money. Bring the troops home, close some of the 1,000 bases and put some of that $1 tril­lion a year mil­i­tary bud­get to work on mak­ing Amer­ica great again.

Im­age by Jon Ri­ley, CC

Photo by Gor­don Werner, CC

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