The Trump administration is proposing changes to the National Environmental Policy Act process that would speed up or limit the review of major, federally funded projects such as highways and pipelines. The Georgia Department of Transportation says it likes the sound of that, while a major green group that works in Atlanta, the Southern Environmental Law Center, isn’t pleased.

The proposed changes to NEPA’s process are complex and technical, and GDOT and the SELC representatives said they haven’t fully digested them yet. It’s not even clear whether it would change the current NEPA review of GDOT’s toll lanes projects on Ga. 400 and I-285, though the agency say probably not. But both groups say they understand the broad intent, as expressed by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, to “modernize, simplify and accelerate the NEPA process.”

GDOT spokesperson Scott Higley said that “the department itself is still digesting the proposed changes, though I can tell from our perspective any change that streamlines the very necessary but currently lengthy NEPA process is a good one.”

Brian Gist, an attorney in the SELC’s Atlanta office, said that the “general thrust of the review is less public education and outreach… Our position is that you should err on the side of doing more consideration of your actions [rather] than less.”

NEPA requires public input and a broad array of environmental reviews – including pollution, noise, resident displacement and historic resource impacts – on federally funded or permitted projects.

Local governments and community improvement districts sometimes complain about the extra process and paperwork as a delay on projects. Brookhaven and Sandy Springs are among local cities that have withdrawn from federal funding for certain projects in recent years to speed them up. President Trump has expressed similar concerns, which led to the proposed changes from the Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees the NEPA policy. A council fact sheet about the changes says that environmental impact statements on federal highway projects have “averaged over seven years to complete,” though the time period for that average is not specified.

Gist said it’s “sort of a myth” that NEPA review causes project delays. More often, he said, the delay factors are cost, design and engineering, and “political considerations.” He said GDOT’s toll lanes are a good example, studied for 15 years and recently delayed again after GDOT said it needed to break the mega-projects up into smaller sections to get more construction bids. Gist said it’s “a fantastically expensive project and they’re having trouble lining up funding” while getting political pushback in local communities.

The council is accepting public comments about the changes through March 10.

“GDOT intends to submit comments, but we have not drafted those comments as yet,” said Higley.  “While the proposed rule doesn’t change the basic requirements for complying with NEPA, instead aiming to streamline procedural processes, the changes appear to be substantial and our staff is still reviewing.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.