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With the Highway Trust Fund caught up in full-blown Transpo-geddon and states responding by tightening their purse strings, it’s not unusual to hear about a bridge or highway project that’s had to be put on hold.
But a $6 million bridge project in Ottawa County, Oklahoma is now on hold not because of budget constraints. It’s because of a fish. A three-inch long catfish known as the Neosho madtom, to be exact.
Ottawa County Commissioner John Clarke says the plan to replace the bridge was originally cleared environmentally, until the design had to be changed last month.
"They actually modified the design to be able to put shorter spans in there, and by doing so, it required two additional piers," Clarke said.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service ordered an additional study to determine whether the two additional piers could disrupt the endangered madtom catfish habitat in the area.
"It takes a minimum of 90 days to complete that study, so we're looking probably at 4 months minimum to start construction again," Clarke said.
Ottawa County commissioners say the existing bridge must be taken down prior to opening the new one, but wildlife experts say deconstructing the piers on that bridge would also disrupt the fish habitat.
Because of the delay on the $5.8 million project, commissioners expect the contractor to ask for an additional $40,000 to $50,000, taking away from other projects in Ottawa County.
"If we can come up with an alternate way of getting the piers in place, obviously we'll save some money that way," Clarke said.
The plight of the Stepps Ford Bridge construction project just illustrates why the Chamber has supported a bill that would bring long-needed reforms to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by incorporating more transparency, accountability, and better science into how the Act is implemented.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was crafted in 1973 to preserve, protect, and recover key domestic species. Since the law has been enacted, 1,500 species and sub-species have been listed.
Unfortunately, the implementation of the ESA over the last four decades has stunted economic development, halted the construction of projects, and burdened landowners – all with very little success in the actual recovery of species (only 2% of the species listed have recovered).
Like so many facets of the regulatory process, the ESA regulatory agenda often has been driven by outside interest groups using the tactic of “sue and settle” in recent years. It is imperative that the federal agencies implementing the ESA strive to bring more transparency and stakeholder input to the process.
H.R. 4315, the 21st Century Endangered Species Transparency Act, would do just that with the following provisions:
- Requiring that data used by federal agencies for ESA listing decisions be made publicly available and accessible through the Internet;
- Requiring the Administration to track and make available online details on the federal government funds being spent on ESA-related litigation;
- Giving state, local, and tribal groups a larger and more meaningful role in ESA listing decisions; and
- Limiting the award of litigation costs in ESA-related litigation to prevailing parties and place reasonable hourly caps on attorney fees.
The House approved the Chamber-supported bill on July 29 by a vote of 233-190, despite the threat of a White House veto. Its passage in the Senate is uncertain, at best.
Meanwhile, the construction of important infrastructure projects (like the Stepps Bridge project), the creation of jobs, and economic prosperity are on the line because of ESA listings. It is imperative that the listing process be transparent, based upon sound science, and balanced between species protection, compliance costs, and property rights. The reforms outlined in this bill would make those kinds of improvements to the ESA.