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Permitting problems put brakes on key U.S.-Canadian transportation projects

FILE - A BNSF freight train rolls through the Marshall area just south of Spokane. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - A BNSF freight train rolls through the Marshall area just south of Spokane. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

Degraded infrastructure, unsteady political support for financing transportation projects and regulatory differences between American states and Canadian provinces dominated discussion Monday during the transportation sessions at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region’s annual summit being held in Spokane.

Spanning any ideological divide among the governmental and private sector participants, however, was the push to simplify the permitting process for large-scale infrastructure projects.

Zak Andersen, an executive at BNSF Railways, said the process that gives permission to build those projects, such as the $680 million Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview project, has been “hijacked.” Washington state rejected permits for the coal terminal, citing “significant and unavoidable harm” to the environment, after a lengthy and heated public process.

“Where the system has gone awry, it’s become too easy to hijack the process,” he said, referring to special interest groups that he characterized as having outsized influence. He said the scope of the coal project in the state’s definition stretched from Longview “to the coal mines of Wyoming.”

Andersen, whose company has joined a lawsuit opposing the state’s decision, said defining a project’s scope in such a way allows for “the worrying of things that seem beyond what the project is being permitted for.”

“It makes building anything impossible,” he said. “It’s becoming a long, drawn-out process simply due to inertia. You folks need to get off the bench.”

Leslie Blakey, president of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, agreed that the nation’s permitting process has gotten out of hand.

“The classic issue of, ‘What is the federal government doing to mess up our lives,’ is evident in the permitting issue,” she said. “Even if we straighten ourselves out at the federal level, there are a lot of processes at the state level that need to be addressed.”

Blakey said onerous permitting requirements lengthen project schedules and increase costs, chasing away private investment in a public good. But, she said, there are signs that reform is coming.

Working with the Obama administration in 2011, Congress built permit reform measures into a transportation spending act. That work has continued with the Trump administration, which included 15 pages of permit reform into its stalled $200 billion infrastructure proposal.

“This administration has been radical on a number of fronts, but this is not one of them,” Blakey said. “On this area, they are building on a long history of permit reform recognized by Congress and previous administrations. It is not a radical approach.”

Idaho state Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, helped organize the session and said the need to streamline the process is key to meeting the economic challenge from Asia.

“If you haven’t been to China in the last 20 years, you need to go,” he said, adding that the U.S., Canada and Mexico need to strengthen their bonds. “If we don’t get our act together we are seriously going to get our butts kicked in the next 20 to 30 years.”

The annual PNWER summit is meeting in Spokane through Thursday. The group’s mission is to “increase the economic well-being and quality of life for all citizens of the region,” which encompasses Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Alaska, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, the territory of Yukon and Northwest Territories.

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