White House seeks to speed reviews of major infrastructure projects

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration announced on Monday a new effort to speed environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects, a White House official said.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the Infrastructure Initiative at the Local 18 Richfield Training Site in Richfield, Ohio, U.S., March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

U.S. President Donald Trump has made shortening the often lengthy timetable to get approvals for new highways, runways and other projects a key focus of his infrastructure reform plans.

Trump presided over the signing of the “One Federal Decision” memorandum of understanding by members of his cabinet after a meeting with agency heads.

The signers include the heads of the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, and Homeland Security departments, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

The memorandum says “one lead federal agency will be responsible for navigating major infrastructure projects through the entire Federal environmental review and permitting process.”

The agencies will work to develop a single environmental Impact Statement and sign a single record of decision and the lead agency will seek written agreement from other agencies at key points. It also seeks to try to quickly resolve interagency disputes.

Representative Bill Shuster, who heads the House Transportation Committee, called the move allowed under a 2015 law a “positive step forward in the fight against inefficient, bureaucratic permitting.”

Scott Slesinger, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said local residents should have input in major projects and downplayed the memorandum.

“Trump’s much ballyhooed infrastructure plan has been diminished to little more than an ideological attack on environmental safeguards,” Slesinger said.

In August, Trump signed an executive order directing that agencies use the process for major infrastructure projects.

Trump has vowed to end “the painfully slow, costly and time-consuming process for getting permits and approvals to build.”

The Republican president, who was a New York-based real state developer before taking office, has repeatedly decried the process of winning approval for highway permitting. “It includes 16 different approvals involving 10 different federal agencies being governed by 26 different statutes,” Trump said last year.

In February, Trump unveiled a long-awaited infrastructure plan designed to encourage spending on improvements by states, localities and private investors, but it faces an uncertain fate in Congress.

Trump asked Congress to authorize $200 billion over 10 years to spur a projected $1.5 trillion in road, bridge and other projects.

The proposal has come under fire from Democrats who said it would put a huge burden on local governments without providing enough federal dollars.

Trump’s proposal also seeks legislative approval to sweep away environmental and other regulatory hurdles to new projects.

Trump’s top infrastructure adviser D.J. Gribbin is expected to depart the White House later this week, an administration official said Monday. The administration is considering a number of potential candidates to replace him.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Nick Zieminski