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Invisible Wall

eye on the news

Invisible Wall

A rebuilding project in my town offers lessons about bureaucracy and the perils of federal funding. February 11, 2020
Politics and law
Infrastructure and energy

Last month, the Trump administration proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, a nearly 50-year-old law that enforces burdensome environmental-impact standards on infrastructure projects. Administration opponents condemned Trump’s proposal, warning that any reform to NEPA would have devastating consequences. Yet Republicans and Democrats alike have criticized NEPA’s restrictive regulations for decades, objecting to how its seemingly endless approval process delays needed projects at all levels of government.

I was reminded of NEPA’s reach when I found out what was delaying the restoration of a seawall in Rye, New York, where I live. This spring, construction workers should finally complete the wall, which adjoins a beach near my neighborhood. The project dates to 2012, when Hurricane Sandy swept away stones and mortar of the century-old wall. Ever since, my wife and I have stopped short of the waterside view on our evening walks.

The sea wall offers a national lesson about NEPA’s impact on public-infrastructure projects. Even small-town projects, regardless of size and cost, are subject to burdensome governmental regulations. In Rye, a 100-foot sea wall costing only about $1 million required approvals from ten federal, state, or local government agencies, and the town retained environmental, engineering, and grants-management consultants so that it could apply for federal funding and proceed with the rebuilding.

This bureaucratic labyrinth persists because local governments no longer finance most infrastructure projects. Federal projects are now local. Just as New York and New Jersey lobbied the Department of Transportation to replace a train tunnel under the Hudson River, and the late House Speaker, Tip O’Neill, arranged for Congress to appropriate funds for Boston’s Big Dig project, so, too, did Rye officials look to Washington to rebuild the sea wall.

Rye’s funding prayers were answered when the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to finance the wall through its disaster-relief budget. The funding didn’t come easily, though: numerous agencies had to sign off on it. According to Rye’s supervisor, Gary Zuckerman, and his chief of staff, Debbie Reisner, the Army Corps of Engineers had to certify that the town followed erosion-protection rules. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to confirm that the project wouldn’t harm endangered species. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, meantime, investigated whether the wall would compromise essential fish habitats. These signoffs were needed to obtain a tidal wetland permit from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which, in turn, reviewed if the project complied with its Coastal Erosion Hazard Area regulations. All this for a wall that isn’t even in the water.

Then there was the local government squabbling. The project costs, I learned, are shared by two jurisdictions—the City of Rye and the Town of Rye—which jointly run the Rye Town Park Commission. In response to delays about how the city and town would proceed, FEMA considered downgrading the project’s priority level. The need for local-government approvals—a planning commission wetland permit, building permit, and architectural board approval—slowed things down even further.

The project is slated for completion in May, when nesting season for common tern seabirds begins—another potential construction delay. For now, the cement-mixers keep rolling and bulldozers proceed. But one can’t help but recall how the 2012 hurricane whipped up the Long Island Sound’s water over many walls, seriously damaging private beach clubs and stately homes. Yet the cleanup and rebuilding elsewhere were completed within months.

Matters will improve if the Trump administration prevails with its proposed changes to NEPA. Reforms would include the creation of a new category for “non-major” projects, as well as a one-year-time limit for agency approval of projects like Rye’s wall. These reforms channel the work of Phillip Howard’s nonpartisan organization Common Good, which, in a 2015 report, noted the high costs of delayed permits.

If the NEPA changes get made, local officials can better navigate the bureaucratic maze. For now, Rye’s wall still isn’t “shovel-ready,” but, in time, my wife and I will get to the sea. Trump’s proposal will make that day arrive sooner.

Photo: SorinVidis/iStock

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