On October 19, 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) released a draft Strategic Plan (the Plan) for public comment. The Plan establishes goals and long-term objectives for increasing investment and streamlining federal environmental review and approval of transportation infrastructure projects over the next five years (Fiscal Years 2018-2020). Comments on the draft Plan are due by November 13, 2017.
The Plan marks DOT’s first formal action responding to President Trump’s Executive Order 13807 (EO 13807), requiring federal agencies to update strategic plans to provide for streamlined environmental review. While the Plan sets forth ambitious goals, it remains to be seen whether it can deliver those goals.
As described in the Plan, national investment in maintaining and repairing infrastructure has not kept pace with demand, leaving highways, transit systems and bridges in dire need of repair. Inadequate infrastructure investment has serious consequences: “compromis[ing] the safety, capacity and efficiency of the U.S. transportation network,” reducing mobility of people and goods, competitiveness and quality of life. In particular, the Plan notes worsening highway travel time in urban areas, structurally deficient highways and bridges, and maintenance backlogs as illustrating the need for greater infrastructure investment.
Through the Plan, DOT will seek to “provide guidance, technical assistance, and research that leverages Federal funding, accelerates project delivery, reduces project life cycle costs, and optimizes the operation and performance of existing facilities.” The Plan addresses four main areas:
- Safety: Reduce transportation-related fatalities and serious injuries across the transportation system;
- Infrastructure: Invest in infrastructure to ensure mobility and accessibility and to stimulate economic growth, productivity, and competitiveness for American workers and businesses;
- Innovation: Lead in the development and deployment of innovative practices and technologies that improve the safety and performance of the Nation’s transportation system; and
- Accountability: Serve the Nation with reduced regulatory burden and greater efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability.
Environmental Review Streamlining
Consistent with EO 13087, the Plan attributes infrastructure problems in part to unduly lengthy, costly and unpredictable federal approval and environmental review processes. The Plan calls for DOT to “streamline the environmental review process to deliver transportation projects more quickly and efficiently to provide more timely benefits for users while safeguarding our communities and maintaining a healthy environment.” One of the strategies listed in the Plan’s Infrastructure section is to “improve[e] interagency coordination, reducing duplication of reviews, and enhancing transparency and accountability.” DOT promises to act as a leader in implementing EO 13807, which imposed a two-year deadline goal for completing reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Public Private Partnerships
As part of its overall infrastructure strategy, DOT encourages the development of partnerships between the public and private sectors. Specifically, the Plan encourages the use of Public-Private Partnerships (P3s), which will facilitate the financing, development and implementation of major transportation projects, and will increase overall project efficiency, by “allow[ing] public agencies to leverage private sector capital and expertise” and “introducing greater market discipline to project delivery and management.”
Issuance of the draft Plan marks the DOT’s first formal action in response to EO 13807. Like the EO itself, the Plan identifies needs and objectives but provides few specifics. As DOT and other federal agencies proceed with EO 13807 implementation, project proponents, state and local transportation agencies and stakeholders involved in major transportation infrastructure projects must wait and see what unfolds.