Politics

Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending hamstrung by his own bureaucratic red tape

President Biden’s zealous regulatory regime threatens major delays for his $1.2 trillion infrastructure program, according to experts, despite him heralding the swift impact of creating jobs and improving Americans’ quality of life.

Mr. Biden’s decision to make tackling climate change an “all of government agenda” resulted in a flurry of new regulations while he also ordered more stringent enforcement of old rules. The result has been a layering of bureaucratic burdens upon state and local governments and private companies, according to critics.

“It’s a compounding effect, all of which is going to result in a lot more evaluation and a lot less actual delivery of infrastructure dollars and resources to projects on the ground,” said David Bernhardt, who served as interior secretary under former President Donald Trump.

Mr. Bernhardt pointed to new regulations and procedures implemented by the administration for enforcing the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The extra paperwork attesting that projects do not hurt animal habitats or contribute to environmental degradation delay the groundbreaking on new highways, bridges and port projects in some cases for as much as a decade.

“If you take President Biden at his word, he wants to deploy these resources and move forward in a bipartisan way to enhance today’s infrastructure,” said Mr. Bernhardt, who now chairs the Center for American Freedom at the America First Policy Institute. “But at the very same time, his administration is creating a more burdensome, slower and less efficient process. In doing so, he is both delaying and frustrating his own stated goal, which is incredibly ironic.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Biden’s allies brushed aside concerns about a slowdown from too much red tape.

“The idea that environmental regulations delay infrastructure projects is wrong,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat. “Fixing our roads and bridges shouldn’t mean eroding the health of our planet for future generations.” 

Since taking office, Mr. Biden has empowered cabinet secretaries and agency bureaucrats alike to push new and wide-ranging environmental regulations. Mr. Biden wants to make up for what he sees as lost time after four years of President Trump, who made deregulation a top priority. 

“My administration is working overtime to show that our climate commitment is action, not words,” Mr. Biden said at the U.N. Climate Conference in November. 

In his first year in office, the administration proposed more than 3,777 new rules and regulations, according to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. At least 295 of the new regulations are deemed “economically significant,” meaning they have an annual cost of at least $100 million. 

Several of the new rules and regulations directly impact agencies overseeing Mr. Biden’s infrastructure package. For instance, 301 rules and regulations have come from the Department of Transportation, while 266 have come from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The impetus further shifted to agency rulemaking when Mr. Biden’s climate agenda stalled in Congress late last year, though the regulatory crackdown was already proceeding apace.

The EPA boosted its inspection efforts, visiting more than 3,200 job and project sites across the country. The agency already levied more than $1 billion in fines against individuals, companies and local governments for violating environmental regulations. The amount of fines in 2021 was the highest figure since 2017.

The agency also committed more than $8.5 billion to bring existing projects into compliance. EPA officials note that not only is the figure the highest amount in four years but 28% of the commitments were to address non-compliance in communities with “environmental justice concerns.” 

“To deliver on this commitment, we’ve focused on actions with the highest potential to improve compliance and protect communities,” said Larry Starfield, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance. “Coming off a challenging few years, these 2021 results make clear that rigorous enforcement is back at EPA.”

Regulations have expanded unabated even as the White House touted its infrastructure package as a “once in a generation investment” that will create “shovel-ready” jobs and projects.  

GOP lawmakers said the president’s rhetoric is disingenuous. 

“Although the administration is handing out an unprecedented amount of money for infrastructure, eliminating good regulatory reforms and adding new barriers to builders, job creators and local communities … will result in pushing more paper and increased compliance costs rather than putting shovels in the ground,” said Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the top Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Apart from environmental measures, experts say the White House is imposing new regulations on the transportation sector that will slow the fruition of new projects. 

David Ditch, a transportation policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, noted the DOT is pushing new safety regulations on roads and highways. The proposal focuses on raising driver safety standards, while simultaneously reducing speed limits and revamping road and highway infrastructure. 

Transportation Pete Buttigieg said a new “paradigm shift” is needed to combat a spike in traffic fatalities witnessed since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We cannot and must not accept that these fatalities are a fact of life in America,” said the secretary. “People make mistakes, but human mistakes don’t have to be fatal.”

As part of the proposal, Mr. Buttigieg is championing an overhaul of regulations and guidelines for road and highway construction. The emphasis will be on creating roads that help drivers “self-enforce” speed limits and improve emergency access to crash sites 

While Mr. Ditch said the goal of the proposal was beneficial, it would only add another layer of bureaucratic red tape to states and localities looking to jump-start infrastructure projects. 

“This is going to make highway projects more complicated and more expensive,” he said. “It will add to the length of time that it takes for federal bureaucrats to review and approve new highway projects funded by the bipartisan infrastructure bill.” 

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