U.S. Representatives Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) recently introduced legislation to ease the environmental review process of highway, rail, transit and multi-modal projects.
Should the legislation pass, it could prove useful to places like Stanislaus County and neighboring facing a variety of infrastructure challenges through removing unnecessary bureaucracy, giving the Secretary of Transportation the authority to certify that a given state’s environmental review process is sufficient to satisfy the federal environmental review process per the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Essentially the legislation is geared toward easing near-duplicate review processes across federal and state governments which can often prove to be costly and time-consuming.
For example, Denham’s NEPA Reciprocity Act, H.R. 2497, would allow California projects that have already passed the state’s environmental review process, required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), to bypass a second layer of duplicate review.
Per the Government Accountability Office (GAO), federal agencies do not typically track costs imposed on local governments when completing the NEPA analysis. However, many California counties report average costs of 36 to 50 cents on the construction dollar to move a project through the approval processes with the accompanying environmental documents, plans, specifications and estimate. The imposed costs are in addition to those related to state CEQA reviews that are more stringent than federal NEPA standards.
Under the legislation, all states are qualified to participate, and the Transportation Secretary would be required to approve state’s applications should their proposed alternative environmental review and approval processes prove substantially equivalent to Federal environmental laws and Federal regulations; the state programs would be subject to federal review every 5 years.
Notably, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 would not apply to any decision by the Secretary to approve or disapprove any application submitted pursuant to this section.
The legislation has been supported by the National Association of Counties and the California State Association of Counties along with a handful of California House Members acting as original co-sponsors to the legislation.