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Bush Orders Faster Environmental Reviews for Transit Projects

Regulation: He calls some of the programs vital to the economy. Critics see an end run.

September 19, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Bush directed federal agencies on Wednesday to accelerate environmental reviews of high-priority transportation projects that he said are vital to the economy.

The order, immediately criticized as an attempt to circumvent a landmark environmental law, calls on the Transportation secretary to create a list of projects for expedited review.

For those projects, the order says, "agencies shall to the maximum extent practicable expedite" reviews for permits or other approvals, and take other necessary action consistent with "available resources and applicable laws."

Some reviews involve environmental impact statements, which can take years. But most are environmental assessments, which can be done in months.

A White House statement said moving ahead with public work projects "in an efficient and environmentally sound manner is essential to the well-being of the American people and a strong American economy."

A Cabinet-level task force would review the priority list every few months and develop ways to make it easier to get the proper approvals.

The order comes while the White House is conducting a review of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, which requires lengthy environmental studies and public comments to detail the effects a proposed project would have on the environment and ways to minimize that impact.

Officials with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which is overseeing the broad review of the 1970 statute, have said that they hope to update a law that often means bureaucratic delays for developers, loggers and others.

Environmentalists have said they worry the intent of the review is more far-reaching.

"Any and all reviews under this executive order will fully comply with NEPA and all other environmental statutes," Scott McClellan, a spokesman for the White House, said.

Speeding these projects, he said, can ease congestion and reduce pollution at the same time.

The typical time for environmental reviews of major highway projects is four years, while airport runway proposals take three years, McClellan said.

Deron Lovaas, a transportation specialist with Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said Bush's order seemed to chip away at environmental safeguards. He said federal highway data show that delays with transportation projects are usually caused by a project's complexity or lack of money, not environmental reviews.

"This is a way to circumvent NEPA, mostly by setting up this new category of high-priority projects and giving the [Transportation] secretary so much latitude to determine how the process moves forward," Lovaas said.

Bush's order came a day before a hearing by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the administration's efforts to streamline environmental reviews for transportation projects.

"This executive order is about as clear as a rainy day," said the committee chairman, Sen. James M. Jeffords, an independent from Vermont. "It seems to raise more questions than it answers."

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