The recent bipartisan federal infrastructure funding bill promises to generate more bridge and road development and maintenance work in the years ahead than what has been done in more than half a century. It’s why the Biden administration released a new Permitting Action Plan to accelerate federal government building permit approvals and strengthen environmental reviews. The administration plans to do this by leveraging existing government authorities more effectively and using new powers included in the bipartisan infrastructure law.
The action plan explains the Biden administration’s strategy for ensuring that federal government environmental reviews and permitting processes work effectively, are efficient, and provide enough transparency to ensure that everyone involved in projects is aware of everything happening related to them. President Biden wants all decisions to be guided by the best available science to promote positive outcomes for both the environment and the communities impacted by bridge and road construction projects. The ultimate goal of these new guidelines is to:
- Improve supply chains.
- Reduce costs.
- Grow the clean energy economy.
- Deliver infrastructure projects on time and within budget.
The administration believes that bridge, road, and other infrastructure projects will:
- Ease inflationary pressures.
- Create conditions for businesses to grow.
- Strengthen supply chains.
- Improve access to affordable clean energy that powers homes and businesses at lower costs.
- Reduce dependence on unreliable foreign supply chains.
- Create jobs in the bridge sector for a long time.
The action plan has been developed to ensure that all these benefits can be realized as quickly as possible.
The Permitting Action Plan is built on five key elements. This article will explain them and what businesses in the bridge sector can do to leverage them effectively.
1. Improve the permitting process through cross-agency coordination
Early coordination and effective communication across federal government agencies will be necessary for completing bridge infrastructure projects on time and within budget.
The Permitting Action Plan will facilitate this in the following ways:
- Leverage the interagency Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council’s increased powers under the bipartisan infrastructure law to:
- Improve coordination among government agencies.
- Avoid and resolve conflicts and bottlenecks.
- Identify and share best practices.
- Accelerate information sharing.
- Encourage troubleshooting.
- Pull together teams of experts to make it easier for multiple agencies to coordinate on:
- Supply chain issues.
- Efficient and on-time reviews.
- Use the United States Department of Transportation’s Interagency Infrastructure Permitting Improvement Center to help facilitate environmental review and permitting by:
- Creating guidance.
- Communicating best practices.
- Organizing reviews.
- Tracking project plans, milestones, and outcomes.
- Studying innovative approaches to bridge maintenance, design, and development.
- Develop new ways to permit bridge projects and conduct environmental reviews that:
- Address common issues.
- Eliminate duplicated efforts.
- Design projects in ways that eliminate resource conflicts and that are climate friendly.
- Work on updating outdated permitting regulations and laws to develop more effective environmental, sustainability, safety, tribal involvement, and community engagement standards.
2. Establish clear time-related goals and track projects better
Communities and project stakeholders will benefit from having clear information about bridge construction and maintenance project schedules, critical milestones and deadlines, and public comment opportunities. Having defined goals and current information improves accountability, encourages efficiency, enables greater public participation in project-related decisions, and enhances trust in government.
Under the Permitting Action Plan, agencies will:
- Develop schedules with clear time-bound goals that include relevant milestones and meet all legal requirements to complete environmental reviews and permitting in sensible and timely ways.
- Increase transparency and accountability by monitoring important project information through the Federal Permitting Dashboard.
- Identify the key federal agency responsible for working with other agencies in the permitting process to develop and implement plans, interagency agreements, or other tools to ensure ongoing and effective coordination and accountability.
Engage in early outreach with key stakeholders
Proactive engagement with people who could be impacted by bridge projects, including those in disadvantaged, underserved, or overburdened communities, along with state, tribal, local, and territorial partners, is central to developing bridges and other transportation assets that serve the needs and priorities of communities across the United States.
To engage more effectively, agencies will be required to:
- Consult with tribal nations impacted by possible bridge and road initiatives as soon as possible and in an ongoing way that respects the relationship between the United States and tribal nations.
- Join together and coordinate with relevant state and local governments as soon as possible and through the project planning, development, and completion processes.
- Review communication and engagement policies and procedures to make them more effective.
- Ensure that adequate staffing is in place to conduct robust engagement efforts, including people from disadvantaged communities.
Improve agency responsiveness, technical assistance, and support
Providing fast and accurate technical help and support will help project sponsors, permit applicants, people in impacted communities, tribal nations, and other stakeholders to navigate the environmental review and permitting processes as effectively and efficiently as possible.
To facilitate this, government agencies will:
- Identify, share, or create resources, including training and tools, to help stakeholders navigate environmental reviews and get permits.
- Check environmental review and permitting data and information collection requirements, looking for ways to consolidate or simplify them, and find opportunities for information to be gathered more efficiently.
Use government agency resources and environmental reviews to improve project results
Timely environmental reviews of bridge and road projects, guided by the best available science, ultimately deliver positive impacts on the communities surrounding them. They require adequate agency staffing and an efficient use of budget dollars.
To do this, the Biden plan recommends:
- Prioritizing resources to implement the initiatives in the action plan.
- Using best practices to speed up hiring and to partner with other agencies to use existing resources efficiently.
- This could include conducting field studies collaboratively and funding positions that make it simpler for agencies to coordinate their efforts.
- Identifying ways to use new technology to collect, analyze, share, and publicly communicate essential information about bridge projects to the public and critical stakeholders.
- Leveraging the latest technology, data, and tools to efficiently and thoroughly determine the environmental and community impacts of bridge maintenance and construction efforts.
Bridge inspection, maintenance, design, development, and construction businesses can expect expedited government permitting and inspection processes — and more cooperation and support — as new projects funded by the infrastructure bill come to fruition. They must take the time now to become familiar with these new efforts and figure out how to leverage them to speed up their bridge revitalization and construction projects and leverage the efficiencies to make them more profitable.