About Those Infrastructure Projects?  Hurry Up And Wait.

Courier Herald column for week of June 11th

Last month officials announced federal approval for Georgia’s third “inland port” in Gainesville.  It is a major train to truck intermodal station designed to get containerized freight quickly and directly to and from the Port of Savannah utilizing an express rail network.

In addition to making it quicker to deliver freight, a major goal of the growing inland port network is to remove trucks from Georgia’s freeways.  The Gainesville Port and the operational inland port in Murray County near Chatsworth in Northwest Georgia have the specific goal of getting freight around Atlanta instead of putting additional long haul trucks on Atlanta’s congested I-285 perimeter highway.

The Gainesville inland port was announced by Governor Deal in 2018.  The ability to proceed with the port has been held up by the Federal Government’s approval under the National Environmental Policy Act, referred to in policy circles as NEPA.

A 2021 article on the inland port from the Gainesville Times included these lines:

“This summer, GPA received a $46 million grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation. Phil Wilheit, the chairman of the development authority, said this grant helped move the expected completion date up an entire year, and the port is expected to be operational in 2024. 

“Receiving federal money meant that GPA had to go through a National Environmental Policy Act permit process. The comment period for the NEPA permit expired last week, said Brian Rochester of Rochester and Associates, who is doing engineering work on the project. This means the project should soon have clearance to start construction from the federal government.”

With the delay in the expected NEPA approval, construction is now expected to begin next year and be completed in the summer of 2026.  That’s almost an 8-year span between the announcement of a needed project and its completion, with much of the time span in between dedicated to waiting for permits.

For background, it’s probably important to note that it takes significantly less fuel to move a freight container via rail than it does by semi-truck.  There’s also a negative environmental impact to traffic congestion, with motorists burning more fuel and causing more air pollution when they’re sitting in bumper to bumper traffic than if they were moving at or near the speed limit. 

And yet, this and countless other infrastructure projects remain in limbo every year waiting on federal bureaucrats to eventually sign off on them. They do this seemingly on their own timeline, often waiting years and sometimes even a decade before providing a green light. 

According to the federal Department of Transportation’s website, the average NEPA process took between 54 to 84 months during the first decade of this millennium.  After a bill aimed at “streamlining” the process became law, the time was reduced to 41 to 47 months between 2011 and 2019.  Only a bureaucrat could look at a four year wait time to issue a permit and declare it progress.

The “debt ceiling” bill, negotiated by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden and named the Fiscal Responsibility Act, put additional limits on the NEPA process that didn’t make the same headlines as the spending cuts and caps did.  It was a priority for those on both sides of the aisle who understand that our ability to build infrastructure in a timely manner is completely hamstrung by a well-intentioned but completely broken process.

Projects with no or minimal federal funding will now be exempt from the NEPA process.  For projects that still must have federal review, a single agency will be named as the lead, cutting down interagency squabbles that lead to differing and conflicting guidance.  Other NEPA procedures are to be streamlined, and standards of “reasonableness” are established, rather than relying on unattainable absolutes.

While all of this may be too “in the weeds” to garner the attention of many, it has been the overgrowth of weeds within this process that desperately needed pruning.  Those of us in high growth states cannot wait five to ten years once a solution to an infrastructure problem is identified just to start work on solving that problem.  By then, the problems have compounded, and the solutions are too often out of date.

Will this solve the problem?  Doubtful.  Is it a good start?  We’ll know in two to five years, when new projects just being announced get (or don’t get) their federal approvals.

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