John Drake John Drake
Vice President, Transportation, Infrastructure, and Supply Chain Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


February 21, 2024


Our nation’s roads, bridges, ports, airports, electric vehicle charging networks, and more will see an injection of billions in federal dollars this year, thanks mainly to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). This bipartisan 2021 law is the largest long-term infrastructure investment in our nation’s history, and these dollars are sorely needed. However, the federal permitting process could determine when Americans see the benefits of these dollars.

The U.S. Chamber has long called attention to the need to increase investment in America’s infrastructure. Indeed, the American Society of Civil Engineers most recently graded our nation's infrastructure a “C-” in 2021 due to its poor condition and the amount of work needed to fix it.

The IIJA is the first real effort by policymakers in DC to reverse decades of underinvestment in our infrastructure, and we applaud the most recent funding announcement from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which helps projects such as: 

  • $142 million to rehabilitate ten bridges, install a new floodwall, and improve traffic safety in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
  • $80 million to improve capacity, travel times, and safety along the I-895/Baltimore Harbor Tunnel in Baltimore, Maryland.
  • $32 million in IIJA funding to modernize Interstate 90 in Mineral County, Montana, which will help Montanans bring their agricultural and freight products to markets in the U.S. and abroad.

However, how quickly these dollars can be put to work hiring U.S. workers and getting shovels in the ground depends on Congress.

Many of the projects in these announcements still need to complete a lengthy and complex federal permitting process. For example, the permitting process for infrastructure projects lasts more than seven years on average — meaning constructing many of these projects may not begin until the next decade — at the earliest.

Make no mistake, this permitting process is important. It is intended to ensure people have a say in projects occurring in their communities. It is also intended to guarantee projects are built safely and with minimal environmental impact.

Sen. Joe Machin discusses the urgent need for permitting reform.

However, the laws governing this process are over 50 years old and have become convoluted and bogged down by federal bureaucracy. Today, multiple federal agencies responsible for permitting a project will often fail to coordinate or assign contradicting requirements to win approval. Further, today’s permitting process often empowers project opponents to seek delays through court actions.  A project sponsor may receive a permit, only to be faced with more delays due to litigation – or even no decision at all. The result: increased costs for the project and delayed benefits for the American people.

Added to record inflation in the U.S., it’s no wonder many states are seeing a decrease in willingness by engineering and construction firms to take on the work. After all, there’s no guarantee that increases in the cost of materials and labor won’t make a project unprofitable by the time the federal government finishes issuing the construction permit.

Here are two examples that illustrate this broken process:

  • The North Carolina I-70 Havelock Bypass Project: This project, located near Wilmington, NC, was initially approved in 1998. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation intervened five years later and sought another review that took eight years. This new review reaffirmed the original 1998 approval. Construction finally began in 2019, and the road is expected to be complete in 2025 — 27 years after initial approval.
  • Michigan US-31 Holland to Grand Haven Project: This project would build a bridge across the Grand River in Michigan and improve safe access to more than 15 state parks and hundreds of tourist-oriented businesses and recreational opportunities. The initial permitting process took 17 years, followed by another 12-year review to “evaluate” the first review. After another five years of construction, the project finally opened in 2015.

We can’t allow necessary infrastructure projects to turn into these examples. It is why the U.S. Chamber is urging Congress to "Permit America to Build" by passing legislation to modernize the nation’s outdated permitting processes.

Waiting another decade to address the urgent concerns of today is too long. Congress must act now to let this money get to work.

About the authors

John Drake

John Drake

John Drake is responsible for representing the business community on transportation, infrastructure, and supply chain issues before Congress, the administration, the media, the business community, and other stakeholders.

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