Oct. 30, 2012 – 7:59 a.m.

Rebuilding Storm-Damaged Roads Is Easier for States Under New Highway Law

The megastorm pummeling the East Coast this week is likely to present roadbuilders with their first opportunities to take advantage of relaxed environmental review regulations for reconstruction.

The surface transportation authorization (PL 112-141) that became law in July eases environmental review regulations for state and local highway authorities. The law includes a blanket exemption from all reviews, approvals, licensing or permitting for any roads or bridges being rebuilt after a weather-related disaster or other emergency.

House Republicans insisted on the provision as part of their effort to streamline the review processes for transportation projects, largely by allowing concurrent — rather than consecutive — reviews by various federal agencies but also by eliminating reviews where possible.

Aside from the disaster reconstruction projects, exemptions are also granted for projects that utilize less than $5 million worth of federal funding and those slated for construction within existing rights-of-way.

Including those exemptions was a major goal of House Republicans, who in return gave up their effort to block EPA regulation of coal ash in the measure.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John L. Mica, R-Fla., called the relaxed requirements “a pretty dramatic reform in streamlining and cutting red tape.”

Besides speeding up reviews, the law also imposes automatic budget cuts on federal agencies that don’t adhere to deadlines.

Transportation planners dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy also will be testing emergency relief funding provisions in the highway law. The Transportation Department issued guidance in September noting that emergency relief funding can be used to rebuild a “comparable facility” that’s designed to carry the same “types and volume of traffic.”

But local officials will have more limitations on seeking federal funding for debris removal after a storm. Though they can still seek federal funds to help remove debris from roads, the Transportation Department will only be able to provide the funds to localities covered by a presidential disaster declaration under the Stafford Act (PL 93-288).

Otherwise, the Transportation Department advised, “debris removal previously eligible for emergency relief funding will only be eligible for FEMA funding.”