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May 19, 2016 5:15 PM, EDT

Infrastructure Permitting Project Delays Driving Up Costs, Experts Say

From left to right; Fawn Johnson, Morning Consult Moderator; Philip Howard, Common Good, Andrea Versteyl, German National Regulatory Control Council; Brittney Kohler, American Society of Civil Engineers; Gerard Waites attorney with United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters. Photo by Eric Miller/TT

WASHINGTON — Infrastructure projects in the United States are taking up to 10 years to gain regulatory approval, a problem that is too often sending investors to other countries and driving up the costs of projects, several transportation experts said.

An “accumulation of laws and regulations,” largely designed to protect the environment via environmental impact reviews, is bogging down approval of badly needed transportation projects and instead causing environmental damage, Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, said at a May 19 Infrastructure Week event here.

The delays are largely due to too many federal agencies involved in the permitting process, which essentially fails to give any agency decision-making power, said Philip Howard, chairman of the nonpartisan reform group Common Good.

Howard’s 2015 study of permit delays, “Two Years, Not Ten Years," concluded there should be “one-stop” permitting.

“The current regulatory gauntlet at federal, state and local levels drags approvals out for years and raises costs unnecessarily,” Howard’s study said.

Howard also told event attendees that public and private comment on a project should be on the front-end of the process and that the fear of litigation should be eliminated.

A six-year delay for a infrastructure project doubles their cost, Howard said.

The approval process can’t be fixed by “tweaking the system,” but will require a “New Deal,” he said.

In the United States, the approval process takes anywhere from five to 10 years, according to a 2014 Government Accountability Office study, said event speaker Jason Miller, who is deputy director of the White House National Economic Council.

Miller said any effort to do extensive reform to the permitting process would be “a difficult one” and would require “giving people the confidence that government works.”

“The permitting process has reached almost a state of paralysis,” said panel member Gerard Waites, a Washington partner in law firm of O’Donoghue & O’Donoghue who specializes in legislative and government affairs matters on behalf of building trade unions and labor-management organizations.

In Germany, the permit approval process is overseen by a single agency for each facet of infrastructure projects ranging from power lines and railways to roads and waterways, said Andrea Versteyl, a professor and member of Germany’s National Regulatory Control Council, a body that helps the government implement policies related to bureaucracy reduction and better regulation.

Gary Guzy, a Washington attorney with Covington & Burling and former deputy director and general counsel for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said potential project clients too often say they want to do their projects “in another country because they get things done.”

John Porcari, a former deputy transportation secretary in the Obama administration and currently national director of strategic consulting at WSP/Parsons Brinkerhoff, said that infrastructure project firms are frustrated with the cost escalation associated with approval delays.

To help the process move faster, Porcari said there needs to be both a passionate outside and internal advocate for projects.

Sophie Shulman, a senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the five-year FAST Act transportation law signed in December contains 18 provisions intended to help speed up the project delivery process for surface transportation.

Among those provisions is a requirement that by June 15 the head of a new Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council establish an inventory, or “dashboard,” of projects that are pending environmental review or authorization of the head of any federal agency, said panelist Angela Colamaria, permitting team lead with the White House Office of Management and Budget.