Guest Op-Ed: What Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Missed About the Review Process

Last week, while speaking on NPR’s All Things Considered about the Trump Administration’s newly released infrastructure plan, D.J. Gribbin, the President’s special assistant for infrastructure policy, argued that infrastructure choices were best made at the local level. “If you go out and you ask the public, you know, where do they want to invest?” he said. “They have much more confidence if they write a check locally.”

The statement implied that, simply by virtue of being taxpayers, most Americans have, or could have, a direct say over the choices officials make about major infrastructure choices.

Our nation’s history of infrastructure decision-making makes it clear that this is hardly the case. While there have been a multitude of fights over infrastructural projects large and small since World War II, only a handful of those initiatives have resulted in direct changes to megaprojects. This is especially true in the realm of transportation infrastructure.

While not many have been successful, the fights themselves are crucial for us to understand. Debates about infrastructure are elemental to the shape of our cities. The ways people engage with projects that cut through their neighborhoods and shape their city are critical avenues for broader political participation. The structures these debates focus on are built to last for 40-50 years, affecting multiple generations. The decisions made about such projects – and the process gone through to reach those decisions – therefore must be open, equitable, and meaningful.

Efforts to create such a process are still a work in progress. But since the late 1960s, legislation has systematically been put into place that slows major projects down, requires greater public input, and that generally offers a counterweight to the momentum that suggests big projects should be built as quickly as possible. In many places robust engagement efforts are now at the core of how cities, regions, and states approach their infrastructure plans.

The effort to create such a system began with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 and the slew of environmental laws that passed from the late 1960s into the 1970s. A centerpiece of the slate of environmental laws was the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was passed in 1969.

NHPA required careful review of the impact that public projects would have on historic sites. NEPA required a systematic environmental review of every major project and offered several rounds of review to public stakeholders. These acts helped establish concrete public engagement requirements into the process of making major infrastructure decisions. They were also among the first that gave the public tangible information about what impacts a project might cause that could be used to either support or oppose a project.

In my new book, Power Moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development, I track some examples of the ways these public engagement and review processes allowed residents in Houston, Texas to involve themselves in infrastructure debates.

In the early 1970s, for example, just after the passage of NEPA, residents in the Harrisburg and Second Ward neighborhoods of central Houston used environmental impact statements as a venue through which to voice concerns about a major highway project and forced the Texas Highway Department (now TxDOT) to create a freeway study team that engaged with the public in ways the Department had never done before. In countless examples in Houston, Texas and across the United States, federal oversight legislation has been crucial to giving any modicum of voice to everyday Americans.

Given the historically rooted intent of these acts, the Trump Administration’s praise for local decision-making and public decision-making rings hollow. Even as the Administration points to the desirability and importance of localized input, the infrastructure plan undercuts major elements of legislation intended to offer individual inputs. The plan calls for ending processes that help secure meaningful participation and also ensure projects do not cause major harm to vulnerable populations or sensitive landscapes.

Under the Administration’s “one agency, one decision,” dictum, environmental oversight for infrastructure projects would be reduced in order to streamline the regulatory process. The plan would allow USDOT and state departments of transportation to forgo consulting with agencies such as the Department of the Interior or the Department of Agriculture about sensitive land areas or historic sites.

The plan would also allow for final designs of projects to be put into place before the final environmental review is completed. If projects are fully conceptualized before final public input is collected or final environmental findings are released, projects are far less likely to be altered or challenged.

Each of these changes would effectively roll back places for the public to shape infrastructure projects of all kinds. Such steps would drastically curtail existing commitments to public input and transparency. They would threaten to return our infrastructure decision-making to a place where residents have little say in a project’s shape or purpose.

Undoubtedly, there are ways to improve the processes used to plan, design, and build our major infrastructural systems. But we must carefully consider the tradeoffs we make by streamlining the regulatory process, especially if it means destabilizing decades of slow progress toward more meaningful public input.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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