While our country continues to work to respond to the unprecedented coronavirus crisis, there is a bipartisan consensus in Washington that we must also cooperate to get our economy going again and help people get back to work safely.
I believe infrastructure must be part of that conversation. This has long been a priority for both parties and the president, and there is no better time than right now to come together around a solution.
We know that the United States needs more smart, large-scale infrastructure projects that will create jobs, grow the economy, and make our country run better. From ports and waterways to promote international trade, to natural gas pipelines and windmills to bolster our energy security, to expanding broadband coverage to rural parts of the country, these projects are critical to our economic future.
As we work to recover from the pandemic, these kinds of projects represent an important opportunity to get people back to work and restore our economy to the historically strong performance we saw only a few months ago.
But as is often the case, one of the biggest barriers to these kinds of improvements is Washington red tape and bureaucracy, which can slow down the permitting process on these important projects for years. This is a significant problem. In 2019, the World Bank ranked the U.S. 26th in the world in green-lighting infrastructure projects, behind countries such as Lithuania and Tonga.
Compounded with a crumbling national infrastructure that received a “D+” grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, it’s clear that these delays undermine our economy and cost jobs.
That’s why, in 2015, I introduced the Federal Permitting Improvement Act, which Congress ultimately enacted into law as Title 41 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation or FAST Act. That law, now known as FAST-41, significantly reformed the federal infrastructure permitting process while upholding environmental protections. It also created the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, a government body composed of representatives from 17 government agencies, which reduces inefficiencies in the permitting process for some of the largest infrastructure projects.
Once FAST-41 became law, it quickly began making a difference. In just a few short years, the permitting council saved projects more than a billion dollars. First Solar, a company developing solar power projects in Nevada and California, testified to the subcommittee chair last year that the law has made a difference.
According to First Solar, which employs more than 1,000 workers at its manufacturing facility in Perrysburg, Ohio, “FAST-41 and the Permitting Council have played an important role in addressing timely permitting of infrastructure projects and should expand its role to further improve inter-agency collaboration and streamlining of the environmental review and approval process.”
We received more good news recently when the permitting council released its annual report to Congress. The report found that FAST-41 led to the creation of more than 127,000 temporary construction jobs and more than 3,000 permanent jobs across the U.S. over the last year.
What’s more, it showed how the council has succeeded in cutting through the red tape and eliminating unnecessary delays, shortening the government approval process for large infrastructure projects by an average of one and a half years.
This report demonstrates that FAST-41 is delivering real results. That means more certainty when it comes to these kinds of infrastructure projects from start to finish, for project sponsors, for investors, for workers, and for people in the U.S. In fact, the National Association of Manufacturers has called for increased investment in the permitting council as part of its new “American Renewal Action Plan.”
Right now, however, this program is set to expire in 2022, meaning that we will lose the improved coordination between federal agencies and increased certainty for project sponsors if we don’t act soon. That’s why last year, I introduced legislation called the Federal Permitting Reform and Jobs Act, which will lift the sunset provision on FAST-41 and allow the permitting council to continue its great work into the future.
As we work to recover from this coronavirus crisis, it will be essential to help the nearly 40 million people who have lost their jobs get back to work. Large infrastructure projects have been shown to be a great source of jobs and economic growth. I believe they represent an important part of any recovery effort moving forward.
That’s why this permitting council report is so significant — it shows that these projects can move forward in an efficient and merit-based manner, meaning that we can start breaking ground and seeing the benefits of these investments even faster.
Our legislation to lift the FAST-41 sunset provision has already passed the committee level and now awaits passage on the Senate floor. I’m committed to getting it passed this year so that we can continue to make sure more infrastructure projects get done on time and under budget.
Rob Portman is Ohio’s junior U.S. senator.