In the midst of the orange cone season, as freeway users encounter one lane closure after another, a series of metaphorical roadblocks in the transportation planning bureaucracy is impeding the completion of even more necessary highway projects in Utah and across the country. That’s the upshot of the message delivered by Utah’s transportation chief to President Donald Trump in a White House meeting over the nation’s infrastructure needs. We are encouraged to see that it’s a message the administration is taking to heart.
UDOT director Carlos Braceras was among eight state transportation directors to meet with the president over the administration’s plans to invest in upgrading the nation’s infrastructure. The UDOT director told the president the story of a planned roadway near St. George that’s been held up by federal red tape for an incredible 22 years. The proposed road was stalled by efforts to create a preservation area for the endangered desert tortoise. Since then, various federal agencies have had to sign off on the plans, but as Braceras informed the president, no single agency has taken the lead and one deadline after another for necessary decisions expired without any clear disposition.
On that project and others in similar straits, it seems that no single agency “has ownership,” as Braceras reported, adding, “there’s no urgency” to meet deadlines. As a result, project plans pile up on agency shelves, money isn’t disbursed and states grow frustrated by what’s become institutionalized inertia.
The UDOT director said he is heartened by the president’s reaction to the message. As a former real estate developer, he said Trump is aware of how exasperating it can be to navigate the maze of regulations imposed by agencies with a stake in a particular project. In his White House presentation, Braceras pointed out how four ongoing road projects in Utah have run up more than $66 million in costs for environmental review over a period of 26 years.
Following the meeting, the president spoke at the U.S. Department of Transportation of the need to streamline the federal approval process so states can more efficiently and economically proceed with projects. It was a clear sign the president values the perspective brought to Washington by state transportation leaders.
The administration has pledged to invest heavily in American infrastructure, which will require better responsiveness by federal planning and regulatory agencies. As for those projects currently proposed, the White House should indeed take the advice of Utah’s transportation chief and bring more accountability to the approval process that’s been holding up vitally-needed work in a state where rapid growth is putting continued pressure on our transportation arteries.