Moving Transportation Projects into the Fast Lane

We need to re-engineer the front-end review and approval process to get these projects done — and reap their benefits — much more quickly.
May 12, 2014
By John D. Porcari  |  Contributor
John D. Porcari, senior vice president and national director of strategic consulting for Parsons Brinckerhoff, is a former deputy deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation and former secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation.

State and local leaders know first-hand that transportation improvements are a key economic-development tool. A carefully designed and executed project can spur growth, improve quality of life and rebuild communities. This is true of transit, highway, rail, port, bicycle/pedestrian and aviation projects alike.

Today, however, we are not getting the full benefits of these investments because a project's gestation period is often measured in years -- sometimes decades. It's also hard to ask elected officials to stick their necks out for a project that they likely will not be around to see completed.

But it doesn't have to be that way. We can achieve measurably better outcomes through a faster, more predictable process that employs concurrent rather than consecutive reviews and front-loads public and agency participation.

Early efforts to re-engineer these multiple review and approval processes, part of a new pilot underway in the executive branch of the federal government in partnership with state and local agencies, have already paid dividends in time and money saved. For example:

• An environmental impact statement for a major project like the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement in New York usually takes four to five years. Yet for this project it was completed in just 14 months.

• The Interstate-95 Whittier Bridge project in Massachusetts shaved months from its approval timeline by setting up concurrent state and federal reviews.

• The Metro Green Line transit extension in Los Angeles benefitted from early coordination among reviewing agencies and resulted in a new route that reduced the project's cost, saved time and avoided some previously identified community impacts.

Over the years we have shackled ourselves with successive layers of policies and procedures that are not legal requirements and often don't result in better projects. Then we wait for one reviewer to comment before moving sequentially to the next one. And that review may well trigger a re-review of previous approvals. The result: uncertain outcomes, coupled to an excruciatingly long timeframe.

Federal agencies have the legal authority today to concurrently review major projects, with comments posted online and collaborative decision-making occurring in real time. Unfortunately, it is still the rare projects like the ones listed above that get to take advantage of this kind of real collaboration. Front-loading the approval process with greater community and agency collaboration helps to build a consensus on outcomes and avoid nasty surprises at the end of the process. For elected officials, a front-loaded process is also an important risk-reduction phase.

Some of this kind of process re-engineering is already taking place, but much more remains to be done. President Obama's stated goal of a 50 percent reduction in review times for major infrastructure projects is readily achievable and should be pursued with single-minded determination. State and local project partners should line up with the their federal counterparts to get the next phase of this process re-engineering underway immediately.

Pulling a major project forward by one or two years can yield tens of millions of dollars in savings -- savings that can be invested into better community and environmental outcomes. This same process re-engineering that has been tested on a pilot basis should now be applied across the board.

Transportation and other infrastructure projects are the building blocks of economic development, the foundational investments in our future prosperity. For a nation that has been living off the infrastructure investments of our parents and grandparents, it's time to pay it forward. But let's do it smarter and faster.