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Change Leader Full Interview: Simplify Legal Structure to Get Things Done

Todd Danielson on October 16, 2017 - in Articles, Interview

Philip K. Howard, chair of Common Good, is a lawyer who is actively involved in shaping public policy. In addition to writing several books during his career, he recently wrote a report, “Two Years, Not Ten Years: Redesigning Infrastructure Approvals,” which shows that a six-year delay in starting construction on public projects costs the nation more than $3.7 trillion, including the costs of prolonged inefficiencies and unnecessary pollution.

V1 Media: Can you provide a brief professional background?

Howard: I’m a lawyer. I’ve been active in public affairs my whole life. When I was chairing a large civic group in New York City, I kept asking why government officials couldn’t do what they thought was right. That ended up being a book called The Death of Common Sense, published in 1995. I’ve written three other books since then, most recently about how we lost the authority to run a free society, called The Rule of Nobody.

During the last 20 years, I’ve advised [Bill] Clinton and [Al] Gore and George W. Bush, and I was on Trump’s CEO council (now disbanded), advising the Trump administration specifically on how to cut infrastructure red tape.

Common Good is a not-for-profit I started 15 years ago with a very distinguished board, such as former Senators Al Simpson and Bill Bradley. We’re dedicated to one simple idea: nothing happens that’s any good unless a human makes it happen, so you have to restore the ability of teachers and doctors and people in the White House to actually make decisions, to make things happen and get things done.

V1 Media: What are some of the things you do for Common Good?

Howard: Common Good designed a new system of medical justice to fix the medical malpractice problem in a partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health. We did a project to restore the authority of teachers to maintain order in the classroom in New York City. We have this initiative to cut infrastructure red tape and propose legislation—all of three pages long—that would reduce permitting time from a decade to a year or two at most for large infrastructure projects. We come up with new simplified models that allow good things to happen.

V1 Media: Can you describe your recent report about redesigning infrastructure approvals? What are some of the current problems with approvals, and how do you hope to fix that situation?

Howard: I wrote a report published by Common Good called “Two Years, Not Ten Years.” It analyzed the cost of delay in environmental review and infrastructure permitting. It found that a six-year delay, which was common in big projects, more than doubles the cost of infrastructure, so the taxpayers are paying twice as much as they should. We also found that a lengthy environmental review is dramatically harmful to the environment, because it prolongs bottlenecks. It often keeps projects from even getting to the drawing board. You have rickety power lines that waste electricity; waste the equivalent of 200 coal-burning power plants, for example.

Then we proposed legislation that solves the problem by creating clear lines of authority. An environmental official would have the authority and the job of saying how much environmental review is actually needed in a specific project and making sure it’s done on a timely basis. This official in the White House would have the job of resolving disagreements among competing agencies.

Currently, the way to resolve disputes among agencies over permitting is a 16-agency council, which has to meet to resolve the dispute. It would take half a year just to schedule the meeting and then nobody is going to agree, because that’s not what they do in Washington. The current situation is like so many hamsters on a wheel in a cage, it just goes around and around. Nobody decides anything.

V1 Media: Are these mostly environmental reviews?

Howard: No. To get a permit to rebuild infrastructure, you need to do an environmental review. Environmental review is a perfectly good thing, but it ought to focus on what’s important and ought to be understandable by real people, not be 10,000 pages long, turning over every pebble. That’s one thing. The second thing is most big projects implicate many different regulatory concerns. They’ll have water issues. They’ll have Fish & Wildlife issues, Corp of Engineering issues, Fire Department issues, you name it. Right now, there’s no mechanism to work out how those work, how those issues get resolved.

V1 Media: Could you sum up why construction delays are so costly and damaging? How do these numbers get so big?

Howard: Construction costs increase each year, and some of that’s just the inflation of delayed building. More of it has to do with the fact that the project is carrying overhead of all the people working on the project when the project isn’t getting built. You have to pay for all those lawyers and managers. The rule of thumb in the industry, which generally is thought to be conservative, is that overall construction costs go up a little more than 5 percent per year. A six-year delay then would be 30 percent, plus the compounding interest. Then there are all these opportunity costs for not doing a project on a timely basis.

There are efficiencies not gained. There are jobs that people aren’t working. That’s delayed six years. There are traffic jams or wasted electricity because you’ve delayed six years in rebuilding a power line or fixing a bottleneck in the roads. If you add all those things up, which environmental review statements typically do, it ends up being on average about 1.8 to 3.4 times the original cost.

V1 Media: Could you describe the Gateway Project and what was learned from it?

Howard: The Gateway Project is an approximately $25 billion project to modernize and expand the capacity of the passenger rail lines going into New York City from the south, from Washington, D.C. The project involves repairing and expanding the capacity of some 100-year-old bridges and lines, because all these lines converge in New Jersey before they get to Manhattan.

Then about half the cost of the project is building two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River. The current rail tunnels were built 107 years ago, and they were damaged by Super Storm Sandy, so they occasionally have to close down unexpectedly, resulting in massive disruption. It’s absolutely critical to get this project built as soon as possible before those tunnels are in even worse shape. Once Gateway is built, then they’ll be able to close down the two existing tunnels to fix them. Then you’ll have a double capacity of rail lines coming into Penn Station in a decade.

V1 Media: Do you think this is a showcase example of the cost of delays and how much can be shaved by avoiding them?

Howard: We hired a writer from “The Daily Show” to do a cartoon video about how absurd it was to spend years wringing our hands over approving the Gateway Project and doing environmental review when, no matter how it’s done, doing it quicker is better. Speed is of the essence because of the perilous state of the existing tunnels. Partially a result of our advocacy, they shortened the process by years, and they will probably get all their permitting done within 18 to 20 months, whereas it might have taken several years longer, even under their original expedited schedule. That will save taxpayers about $3 billion just for speeding it up. 

In addition, Penn Station is being expanded as part of Gateway to add more platform capacity. There have been several derailments, so they’re having to shore up existing rail lines in Penn Station, which is a separate project.

V1 Media: What is your personal opinion on the state of U.S. infrastructure? How do you think we got here, and what are the major hurdles toward improving the situation?

Howard: U.S. infrastructure is in pathetic shape. Practically every category of infrastructure was built by our great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents—it’s 50 to 100 years old. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given an overall rating of D+ to American infrastructure.

Water systems leak so much that they waste trillions of gallons of water every year. The roads are incredibly congested around urban areas. The Society of Civil Engineers estimated that there’s a $5 return on each dollar invested in upgrading American roads. You name the category; it’s not in good shape.

It’s very important that, as a society, we marshal the resources and bulldoze through red tape, so we can start fixing all these categories. The upside is huge. You not only get a lot of jobs during the construction period, but at the end of the day, after some disruption, you’ve dramatically improved America’s competitiveness, because you save a lot of money when you aren’t stuck in traffic jams.

V1 Media: If there was one thing you could change or recommend others change, what would that be?

Howard: The crisis in American democracy I call “Little Authority”: authority at the point of implementation. We’ve created all the bureaucratic and legal structures that don’t let anyone have the freedom to actually do their jobs: to give the permit, maintain order in the classroom, you name it. The change that’s needed more than any other is to dramatically simplify these legal structures so people can take responsibility to get things done. If they fail, they should be accountable, but right now everyone is shackled by these thousand-page rulebooks.

Todd Danielson

About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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