On October 27, 2020, Fred Wagner was quoted in Politico Pro’s Morning Transportation newsletter on streamlining the environmental review and permitting process for infrastructure projects.
According to the article, President Trump has prioritized changes to the permitting process he famously lampooned for being too long and complicated. But Wagner said the many attempts at project streamlining made by both parties and two branches of government over the past decade have had limited effect.
“There's certainly an emphasis and an intent to apply these new tools,” he said. “But I just finished work on a major project that was an [environmental assessment] and it took three years. Under the new regulations it says no more than six months.”
Agencies are still too worried about legal challenges and oppose skipping steps, Wagner said, so “they still tend to do belt and suspenders, and buttons, and zippers, and the process gets elongated.” Interestingly, he said the rightward tilt of the courts may help, since conservative federal judges may be more open to a deregulatory agenda and more accepting of an approach where a project sponsor delves into just the top three issues in an environmental document instead of going into depth on 20. “Once the agencies get reinforcement that they can be approved for that kind of approach, that's when the real change will happen,” Wagner said.
The pandemic has helped show more efficient ways of doing things, Wagner said — like holding virtual public meetings, which he says improves access, equity, and efficiency. Those changes could also help speed things along without the need for policy changes.