* High priority proposals due to White House Friday
* Environmental permitting eyed, financing must be secure
By John Crawley
WASHINGTON, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Dozens of infrastructure projects could qualify for expedited treatment under a White House plan to create jobs by cutting through regulatory red tape that critics say is holding up important initiatives.
President Barack Obama last month ordered Interior, Agriculture, Housing, Transportation and Commerce Department officials to identify by Friday up to three big projects each that could merit faster environmental approvals and other permits. Funding must already be arranged or identified.
Obama is facing a tough re-election fight next year in the face of a stubborn 9.1 percent unemployment rate. Infrastructure projects, which can help state and local economies, are a key part of his job creation strategy.
Administration officials would not discuss proposals while they were under review, but transportation and construction groups say there are at minimum 50 projects in the permit process that could qualify for faster treatment.
Most are winding their way through a federal, state and local maze that often takes several years and can last between 15 and 20 years for the biggest proposals.
The $2.4 billion Wilson Bridge project linking suburban Maryland and Virginia along the I-95 highway was built under the nose of the U.S. government and took 18 years from proposal to ribbon-cutting in 2006. Boston’s notorious “Big Dig” tunnel/highway project took 30 years from conception to completion.
“It’s just the whole process itself. The way we build things in this country ensures that it will take decades,” said Mark Policinski, executive director and chief executive of the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments.
Some of the 50 projects could be considered high priority by the federal government and create tens of thousands of jobs, said experts, who include a former government official familiar with the infrastructure bureaucracy.
Notable projects that may fall under Obama’s “red tape” requirement include road, airport and rail work in a number of states, a hydropower pipeline in Colorado and housing in California.
A $700 million bridge linking Wisconsin to a town in Minnesota represented by Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann needs a congressional exemption from a wildlife regulation to proceed.
The impact of projects under Obama’s review, experts note, would create jobs for local economies, but not for a year or more. Also, the scale of employment from such work would not dent the U.S. jobless rate.
But states and businesses are eager to see what may emerge from the White House with fast-track authority on environmental or other permitting.
“We are very interested in any relief the president and his agencies can give us on the red tape that usually ties our projects up for years,” John Horsely, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, told Reuters. “I’ve characterized the process we’ve been going through as one step forward, two steps back.”
Politically, Obama would likely see little benefit from regional infrastructure development, although this month he used the backdrop of an aging bridge between Ohio and Kentucky that has long been a priority of regional governments for repair or replacement to promote a $447 billion jobs agenda.
“I think the political payback for local representatives is considerable. It’s a tangible benefit that everyone in the area is aware of and you can claim credit for it,” said Stephen Schier, a political analyst at Carleton College in Minnesota.
“Citizens may like a bridge that the president authorizes, but they also evaluate the president more broadly. It just isn’t there for him,” Schier said.
The $830 billion government stimulus plan — which dedicated $68 billion to infrastructure — was responsible for more than 3 million people in the workforce in the first quarter of 2011, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But that has done little to curb criticism of Obama’s handling of the economy or help his shaky public standing.
Previous government efforts to streamline infrastructure approval had mixed success. The 1998 highway bill included similar provisions and President George W. Bush ordered streamlining changes in 2002, most notably for reconstructing New York’s World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Federal environmental permitting is often cited as the most cumbersome aspect of the process. But a Congressional Research Service Report in August said data showed building community consensus and funding were more prominent reasons for delay. Lawsuits also factor into the approval process. (Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Peter Cooney)