Connecting state and local government leaders
The Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council represents 13 federal agencies and oversees more than $100 billion worth of projects.
The process of getting permits for infrastructure projects that involve federal lands or federal agencies has long been a source of frustration for state and local officials. But a Biden administration official says a new agency is helping to speed those projects along.
“Funding is great, but permitting is where the proverbial rubber meets the road,” Christine Harada, the executive director of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council. “This is exactly where we really need to work together and ensure that we are reducing the friction with respect to getting this infrastructure actually done.”
The council was created under a 2015 transportation funding law, Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, but only became permanent when President Biden signed the federal infrastructure law last year. The council, with representatives from 13 federal agencies, oversees more than $100 billion worth of projects, Harada said.
“The good news for cities and counties is that we have seen projects that have languished – or taken a lot more time than they should have – in the federal permitting process, once they join the FAST-41 process [overseen by the council], all of a sudden… things actually move,” she said. FAST-41 refers to Title 41 in the FAST Act.
The agency is designed to speed up megaprojects that depend on federal approval. One of the areas it has been involved in is coordinating the development of offshore wind farms in the North Atlantic, a major priority for many states. But the council can also help move along projects that involve conventional energy production, renewable energy production, broadband, transmission lines, pipelines and hydropower dams.
It does not, however, get involved with transportation projects, including roads, bridges or railways.
The process is voluntary for project sponsors, and it doesn’t change any of the underlying regulations that projects have to comply with.
“We do not cut corners. We don’t give short shrift to any of the environmental reviews or authorizations or statutes,” Harada told a gathering at the Bipartisan Policy Center Wednesday. “The primary [time] savings we have been able to achieve thus far have been largely just due to pure and simple coordination. Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
The council has also been able to move projects ahead by calling meetings with officials from various federal agencies to resolve “sticky” issues that might take different agencies resolving their differences, she said.
Another benefit to getting the council involved is that it helps agencies prepare for their role in approving a project. Oftentimes, a lead agency will know the details of a project and what its timeline is, but other federal agencies that need to sign off on a portion of it won’t realize that it involves them until later in the process.
The public, meanwhile, benefits from increased transparency around the permit approval process, she said. The agency updates a website with information about the status of projects, which agencies are involved, and who people can contact if they have concerns.
Harada told attendees of the event, which was cosponsored by the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities, that the council was willing to include state and local governments in the process, too. That would require the state to sign a memorandum of understanding with the permitting agency, and the state and local departments would have to follow the same rules as federal agencies do.
Last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also allows tribal governments, Native Hawaiian organizations and Alaska Native corporations to work with the council, even if their projects don’t meet the cost threshold for other projects. Harada said the threshold made it difficult for tribal governments, for example, to move forward with projects to expand broadband in their regions.
The council can also give money directly to state, local and tribal governments to help with the environmental review processes
Irma Esparza Diggs, director of federal advocacy for the National League of Cities, said the additional help navigating the federal permitting process will help local officials achieve their infrastructure goals. “It’s something that sounds so simple, but the reality is if you don’t speak the speak, it is very complicated,” she told Harada. “So we are pleased to have you as a partner.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.