New streamlined environmental review aims to expedite Alaska road construction

Published: Aug. 24, 2017 at 10:26 PM AKDT
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The US Secretary of Transportation is ending her trip to Alaska with a promise to cut regulatory red tape on infrastructure development as well as streamline highway construction.

In a press conference with Senator Dan Sullivan and Alaska Department of Transportation commissioner Marc Luikin, Secretary Elaine Chao announced the State of Alaska will be assuming more responsibility to oversee the multi-agency environmental permitting process commonly known as NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act.)

“The state of Alaska has recently waived sovereign immunity, which will allow Alaska to make its own NEPA decisions when the [memorandum of understanding] is signed,” Chao said.

According to Chao, a memorandum of understanding between the Federal Highway Administration and the state will be released to the public on Friday. A 30-day public comment period on the memorandum will follow.

Chao expressed confidence that after the public comment period is over, the memorandum will be approved in October, making Alaska the sixth state in the United States to assume leadership responsibilities in the environmental review process.

Commissioner Luikin said more state control of the process will allow more projects to be break ground.

“We see the opportunity is to accelerate project delivery, to spend less money on the NEPA process and to put more of the money toward construction of infrastructure which our state desperately needs,” said Luikin.

NEPA is a federally mandated review process currently overseen by the federal government in the vast majority of states. NEPA requires evaluation of potential environmental consequences to be able to mitigate and minimize impacts on nature.

Because the process involves multiple federal and state agencies working together, Chao said there are frequently “inter-agency squabbling” that can slow down the approval of a project for years.

“Getting the federal government out of the process of micro-managing and overseeing this unnecessarily, you’re going to see more projects online,” said Chao.

According to Chao, even if Alaska oversees its NEPA process for road projects, federal regulations must still be followed.

Environmentalist Lois Epstein with the Wilderness Society in Anchorage said her organization opposes the state taking on additional responsibility in the NEPA process. She said she believes the state government is too close to pro-development interests to have an unbiased opinion during environmental reviews, and also said she believes the state doesn’t have the funding to do an adequate job.

Sen. Sullivan said the state can balance environmental needs, while also expediting projects.

“Alaskans care about our environment more than any other state, more than the federal agencies that oversee us,” said Sullivan. “But we also care about jobs.”