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Environmental Review Process Can Stall Projects

When President Dwight Eisenhower first conceived the interstate system more than 50 years ago, he envisioned a system to connect the nation and enhance national defense. The enormous economic benefits provided by the system were not fully understood for some time.

Today, however, the link between a robust economy and a strong transportation infrastructure is undeniable. For example, our nation’s roads and bridges move close to $40 billion worth of goods

daily. That number would be higher, but congestion costs our nation $8 billion annually, according to Department of Transportation estimates. If we don’t take dramatic action to improve our transportation infrastructure system, growing congestion and deteriorating pavement conditions will choke the U.S. economy.

As we move toward reauthorization of our surface transportation programs, we must recognize that our nation’s transportation needs have outgrown our current transportation policy. Simply tinkering around the edges of current programs and policies is not an option. We must be bold in refocusing our limited resources to our nation’s greatest needs.

This reauthorization is the time to address several complex policy questions. First, we must determine the fundamental missions of the federal program. I am a firm believer in a national transportation system, but I think our current federal-aid program tries to be all things to all people. I would argue there is no more essential federal role in transportation than to address the needs that affect the vitality of our interstate commerce and our economy as a whole.

It is critical that we explore new ideas of how to improve freight movement and reliability. On the other hand, we must seriously reconsider the federal government’s role in continuing to support many of the nonessential activities added to the program over the years.

Next, we must ensure that Americans receive a full and effective return on the fuel taxes they pay into the Highway Trust Fund. This may include establishing performance goals and ways to measure progress toward those goals. It certainly includes ensuring that transportation projects are not needlessly delayed, and therefore made more costly, by required environmental reviews.

Too often the environmental review process is used as the means to slow or stop projects, not based on substantive environmental grounds but rather simply because selected individuals oppose the projects. We need to reduce the ability of these not-in-my-backyard interests to continue to manipulate federal law this way.

Finally, but possibly most importantly, we must address funding issues. It is clear that current revenues going into the Highway Trust Fund are not sufficient, as evidenced by DOT’s estimate that the backlog of needed projects to simply maintain the current highway and bridge network is $495 billion and growing.

As Congress begins to re-evaluate the appropriate federal role, we must determine how to pay for that federal share. In particular, as vehicles become more fuel-efficient, the existing funding model of paying per gallon of fuel will not be effective. We need to explore numerous alternative financing mechanisms, because no single option will provide a complete solution. We must be willing to explore new options, including expanded use of public-private partnerships, tolling, congestion pricing, mileage-based road pricing, and requiring all users — not just highway users — to contribute to the trust fund.

Complicating the funding question, of course, is our current economic situation. It is more important than ever that we not demand so much of the American taxpayers that we worsen economic conditions. At the same time, we must remember the economic benefits of transportation spending. According to economists, every $1 billion of federal investment in infrastructure adds $3.4 billion to the gross domestic product and creates 34,800 jobs.

One thing we must not do in this year’s reauthorization discussion is allow debate over other national policies to distract us from surface transportation issues. This bill historically has enjoyed broad bipartisan cooperation and support. The insertion of controversial issues, such as global warming, would pose serious threats to that bipartisanship and would significantly slow, or even halt, the reauthorization process.

Democratic leaders in both the Senate and the House of Representatives have voiced the intention to consider stand-alone global warming legislation at some point in the next two years. It is within that context, and not during transportation reauthorization, that we should debate the merits, or lack thereof, of various proposals to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

The needs of our surface transportation system and the system’s importance to our national economy demand our immediate and focused attention. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress, as well as with the Obama administration, to craft a reauthorization bill that brings focus to the federal program and ensures a system that will continue to provide the basis for economic growth.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

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