APWA President Keith Pugh, PE, PWLF, provided the following comments to the House Committee on Natural Resources on February 28, 2023.
Read the related press release here.
Chairman Westerman, Ranking Member Grijalva, and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony on proposed reforms to NEPA. My name is Keith Pugh, and I am proud to serve as President of the American Public Works Association representing over 30,000 public works professionals. In 1988, I started my career in public works as a municipal engineer with the City of Greensboro and worked my way up until I assumed the role of Director of Engineering Services for the City of High Point, a position I held for fifteen years. Today, I continue my work with WithersRavenel, a 100% employee-owned multidisciplinary civil and environmental engineering firm that delivers services across North Carolina.
APWA members serve in the public and private sectors providing expertise on the local, state, and federal levels. Working in the public interest, our members plan, design, build, operate and maintain transportation, water systems, sanitation, public buildings and grounds, emergency planning and response, and other structures and facilities essential to our economy and quality of life.
Since NEPA was enacted, environmental protection has become a prime consideration in the planning, design, and construction of infrastructure. Like any policy that has been in place for five decades, NEPA should be updated to address current societal needs and to maintain adequate protections for the environment.
As found by CEQ, for federal highway projects, the average length of a final EIS was 645 pages and the average time to conduct NEPA reviews was 7.3 years. The increased time and page length is attributable to administrative burdens placed on communities investing in their infrastructure. These burdens are often overwhelming for public works professionals with limited resources to carry out their responsibilities.
Our nation’s infrastructure needs continued updating and maintenance, and in some cases full replacement. Roads, bridges, water systems, emergency management, sanitation, and much more need investment right now. While the federal government does appropriate funds for projects like these across the country, some communities are deciding against applying for federal funds due to the onerous nature of permitting requirements. In my experience, any time federal funds were introduced into a project, we immediately added at least 25% to the project budget. Some small agencies do not have the staff capacity to handle the additional documentation, so they seek outside assistance which automatically increases the overall project cost further.
Some communities that cannot access other financing sources rely on federal funding and end up spending a large portion of the project dollars on permitting requirements. In the worst cases, communities defer maintenance until infrastructure fails. In the end, many communities are not upgrading and maintaining their infrastructure as needed, leading to a lower quality of life for residents, as well as lower environmental protections and higher public health risks.
For infrastructure programs to be most effective, the application process should not be so overly complex that it dissuades small and disadvantaged communities from attempting to access funding. Public works professionals are doing what is best for their communities despite an array of challenges, and APWA places a high priority on respecting and enhancing local autonomy.
Relief is so desperately needed from supply chain shortages and inflation. The cost of construction and materials has rapidly increased beyond original project estimates. Even proactive communities are not immune to these cost and timing issues, which are exacerbated by permitting delays. These higher costs are ultimately passed on to the public through higher rates or the diversion of resources from other community priorities.
APWA supports continuing efforts to streamline the regulatory process and has been vocal in that support during administrations of both parties including in the FAST Act and “One Federal Decision” as codified in the infrastructure law. These actions have provided a more predictable, transparent, and timely federal review and authorization process for delivering major infrastructure projects. However, work remains and APWA supports:
Establishing a lead federal agency to develop a joint review schedule.
Establishing time and page limits for completion of environmental documents.
Extending the completion period with the approval of the applicant when necessary to allow for further consultation with local agencies.
Bringing the statute of limitations for NEPA cases in line with other environmental statutes.
Reducing duplicative reporting by allowing adherence to state or even local standards.
Examining a reasonable number of alternatives for projects that are feasible, including, if considered, an analysis of any negative environmental impacts of a no action alternative.
All recommendations we are pleased to see included in the BUILDER Act.
Chairman Westerman and Ranking Member Grijalva and Members of the Committee, thank you and your staff for holding this hearing and your work on permitting reform. APWA stands ready to assist you and Congress as you work to make these reforms law.