President Trump issued an executive order yesterday aimed at streamlining the federal approval process for infrastructure projects. Contrary to the impression given by press reports, the order doesn’t repeal any environmental laws or rules. All it really does, the White House explains, is require federal agencies to work together to speed existing approval processes with a target of issuing permits within two years–which is hardly very fast.
Since it isn’t clear to the Antiplanner that the lengthy process of writing and revising environmental impact statements has done much to protect the environment, streamlining would seem to be a good idea. The real problem is not that federal projects threaten the environment–some do, but most don’t–but instead that they threaten the economy by wasting a large share of nation’s resources on projects that produce little value.
For example, the Washington Post published an op-ed yesterday about Maryland’s Purple Line light-rail project. This project would spend more than $5 billion to build and operate a transit line that, the environmental impact statement admits, will actually increase congestion. Since this is conveniently ignored by project advocates, it reveals one of the weaknesses of the environmental process: the documents produced are so lengthy and complex that almost no one read them.
Considering that driverless cars will quite possibly be on the streets before construction of the Purple Line is completed, it is probable that the line will carry very few riders over its lifetime. It certainly won’t carry 60,000 riders a day in 2030, as predicted by the environmental impact statement, as this is far more than carried today by the Hudson-Bergen light-rail line, which serves an area with far more people and jobs than the Maryland suburbs that will be traversed by the Purple Line.
The Purple Line environmental impact statement also showed that buses would be more cost effective at moving people, another fact ignored by rail advocates. Light rail is so inflexible compared with buses that the Purple Line would require construction of an expensive 0.3-mile-long tunnel in order to avoid moderately steep grades that would easily be handled by buses.
Trump’s streamlining of environmental review is a good thing–and in fact probably doesn’t go far enough. But what the federal government really needs is an economic review process to prevent clunkers like the Purple Line from getting funding.