Rebuilding America's infrastructure, as President Obama emphasizes, is a top national priority. The benefits include several million jobs, enhanced competitiveness, and a greener footprint. But it can't happen, as I and others have written, until America fixes its broken legal approval process. Approvals drag on for years, sometimes decades.
This past week, another lawsuit was filed to try to stop a project to raise the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge. The project has undeniable environmental and economic benefits -- allowing a new generation of cleaner, more efficient post-Panamax ships access to Newark Harbor. (See Sam Roberts' "High Above the Water, but Awash in Red Tape.")
Nor does the project involve any of the usual new infrastructure dislocation -- the bridge's foundations are untouched, and rights of way remain in the same place. The roadway is simply being raised within the existing bridge arch.
But the project does involve construction, and a Staten Island group has sued alleging civil rights violations because their neighborhood, six blocks away, will have to deal with whatever effects there may be from increased construction activities. (See "Staten Islanders File Civil Rights Complaint Against Bayonne Bridge Project.") Lawsuits like these are a formula for social paralysis.
On Tuesday the lead story of The Times of London described a proposal to minimize similar NIMBY lawsuits that have also stalled large projects in Britain. The government proposal would create a special court to hear complaints on an expedited basis. The proposal would also apparently limit "standing" to sue to people or groups who have a financial interest being affected.
Similar ideas were suggested at a recent forum on redesigning infrastructure approval co-hosted by Common Good and the Regional Plan Association. Instead of drawn out court proceedings, why not give an official at EPA authority to decide when there's been enough review? Why not limit lawsuits to substantive violations of law, not second-guessing policy decisions? These are not generally legal decisions, but ones that should be accountable politically. Special courts, with expedited proceedings, also seem like a good idea. Legal paralysis is not a formula for a healthy society. America needs to get moving.
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