Improving the permitting process for the delivery of infrastructure projects has come to the fore of late, particularly in the context of recent generational infrastructure investments like the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the CHIPS and Science Act, as well as forthcoming investments made possible by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Governors are leading to develop key principles for use in process improvement, and organizing around project delivery and acceleration.
Major infrastructure projects in the United States must clear a permitting gauntlet that can take 7-10-plus years before ground can be broken. This lengthy process, which involves multiple state and federal agencies, can be complex to track and even harder to streamline. Moreover, the process is far from transparent – for example, according to The Permitting Institute, of the more than 900 projects over $200 million moving through the federal permitting process, only around 60 are being publicly tracked.
On June 28, NGA convened the first of two virtual infrastructure project permitting workshops. The workshop brought together Governors’ infrastructure coordinators, advisors on broadband, transportation, energy, and environment, and agency planning directors from 38 states and territories as well as industry partners and nonprofits. The session provided participants an opportunity to share challenges and best practices to improve permitting and project delivery outcomes, with a focus on the role of Governors and agency teams on state-level permitting processes.
“Process improvement is not political.”Workshop Participant
Participants heard from Alex Herrgott of The Permitting Institute (TPI) and Ben Grumbles of the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), who provided insights into the generational opportunity to build and repair our nation’s infrastructure, from roads and bridges to energy generation and distribution to the broadband connections needed to uplift communities and bridge the digital divide. Both stressed the urgent need to improve the methods and practices by which projects obtain permit approvals. Mr. Herrgott revealed that some of the most significant delays within the permitting process occur at the state level, where 80% of the permitting process lives, rather than federal, and emphasized the advantage of transparency to accelerate the process. Mr. Grumbles discussed the importance of understanding what is under each jurisdiction’s control and suggested that states and territories consider best practices from states like Arizona, which developed a customer service-oriented approach to permitting to reduce confusion around the process. Overall, participants shared a sense of urgency amidst the current opportunities available as a result of the recent federal packages.
Working with the Private Sector and Local Government
As Governors gear up to implement their infrastructure agenda, entities in the private sector providing residents with essential electric, gas, and water utilities will be important partners. With the added urgency of bolstering our electric transmission capacity and ensuring a resilient grid, along with the rollout of high-speed internet connections to millions of homes and repairing decades-old water and sewer lines, there will be an opportunity for states and the private sector to coordinate far more closely than in the past.
During the workshop, participants heard from Steve Melo with AT&T, who stressed the need for a predictable and efficient environment, which can be fostered through de-siloing and close communication and cooperation. A forum at the state level to coordinate efforts across stakeholders to ensure satisfactory outcomes for all involved would be a welcome addition to the process in many locales.
Next, participants heard from Laurie Spears, Managing Director of Transmission Siting, Outreach, and Rights of Way at American Electric Power. She emphasized the current dynamism of the utility space, underscoring the opportunity and duty that has arisen to upgrade aging infrastructure. Ms. Spears highlighted the potential to drive improvements across a variety of project timelines and noted the advantages of master agreements with partner entities along rights of way.
“Expedited delivery isn’t a shortcut – it’s a focus.”Workshop Participant
Corey Hutchings of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) followed with a demonstration of an online project collaboration and joint planning tool used by various stakeholders in the Maryland-DC area. WSSC convenes a regular cadence of meetings between stakeholders to review projects, deconflict, and leverage activities, a process that simultaneously builds confidence and holds individuals accountable for holding up their part of the process. Mr. Hutchings reported success with this model and recommended other states and municipalities adopt a similar structure.
Participants were also treated to a municipal perspective from Monty Zimmerman, the Rights of Way Manager for the City of Lenexa, Kansas. Mr. Zimmerman raised the advantages of free application forms for city improvement projects and the opportunities for efficiencies of scale as other municipal governments cooperate.
Sonal Ram brought an innovative state perspective from her role with the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA). Ms. Ram described a program in Maryland where MDOT SHA funds consultant staff to support the state environmental agency’s review of state highway applications, taking care to avoid conflicts of interest. Sonal recommended this method as a possible solution for states and territories with the common problem of insufficient resources within their permitting agencies. She informed participants of the way in which Maryland’s state agencies have been able to share resources to generate more efficient outcomes while complying with proper oversight requirements.
The workshop concluded with a demonstration by AECOM showing the ways in which technology can promote transparency and community engagement around the permitting process. Many state agencies have found that moving to or adding a virtual participation option has increased public participation and feedback during the project development stage. Innovative software allows greater community involvement than previously possible with physical meetings, allowing people to access the information as their schedule allows and increasing opportunities for input.
This week at the NGA Annual Meeting in Atlantic City, NJ, Governors will join with leaders in the private sector to discuss solutions to streamline the permitting process, address legal challenges, and tackle procurement issues to deliver infrastructure projects more quickly to serve residents. Governors and industry leaders will provide their perspectives on project barriers and opportunities to speed acceleration. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt will lead the discussion, and will be joined by:
- Calvin Butler, President and CEO, Exelon
- Tony Lewis, Regional Vice President, Northeast, MidAtlantic, Central United States, Verizon
- Steve Woerner, President, New England, National Grid
The session is a culmination of NGA’s Energy and Infrastructure Working Group, led by Utah Governor Spencer Cox and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards along with 7 bipartisan Governors, that has been collaborating to improve the energy and infrastructure delivery process to provide better results for states and territories. Over the past several months, the Working Group has focused on solutions to streamline the permitting process. In May, the Working Group released its bipartisan vision for permitting reform for an all-of-the-above energy and infrastructure approach and called on Congress and the Administration to: 1) improve the NEPA process while protecting the integrity of reviews; 2) prioritize states and territories permitting efforts; and 3) Preserve environmental safeguards and community engagement. The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, the bipartisan debt agreement, included many of the Working Group’s recommendations in its updates to permitting and reforms for the National Environmental Policy Act.
The session will take place Thursday, July 13 at 1:45 pm ET and is scheduled to be broadcast on C-SPAN. A recording of the session will be available soon after the meeting. Additional NGA infrastructure and permitting resources can be found at https://www.nga.org/bestpractices/infrastructure/