Trump points to Maryland highway to make case on speeding environmental reviews

President Donald J. Trump said Friday he wants the federal government to speed the environmental review of major infrastructure projects, and he held out a controversial highway in Maryland to make the case for why the improvements are needed.

Calling the current environmental review process "painfully slow," the president announced his administration will create a new council to help project managers "navigate the bureaucratic maze" as well as an office that would "root out inefficiency."

"We have an obsolete system," the former real estate executive said in a speech at the U.S. Department of Transportation. "Instead of rebuilding our country, Washington has spent decades building a dense thicket of rules, regulations and red tape."

Trump then cited a Maryland highway to describe how he believed the process had gone awry. Trump flipped through three large binders that he said were "unnecessary" and "nonsense." He dropped the binders with large thuds, and at one point appeared to kick one of them out of the way as he returned to the lectern.

Photographers snapped a picture of the binder's label: The documents were from the federal environmental review of the Intercounty Connector, the 18.8-mile Maryland highway that was largely completed in 2011.

"These binders on the stage could be replaced by just a few simple pages, and it would be just as good...," the president said. "Because these binders also make you do unnecessary things that cost billions and billions of dollars and they actually make it worse."

The $2.56 billion highway, which had been under consideration since the Eisenhower administration, connects Interstate 270 in Montgomery County with Interstate 95 in Laurel.

The fight over the ICC had long been cast as a conflict between the business community and environmentalists. The Environmental Protection Agency killed the project twice after determining it would damage the adjacent woodlands and waterways.

Robert E. Yuhnke, who was a lawyer for the Sierra Club and what is known today as the Environmental Defense Fund, said the review process was designed to give the public an opportunity to weigh in on precisely the kinds of project the ICC represents. The groups unsuccessfully sued over the the review in 2007.

"The Trump administration has shown a total disregard for environmental impacts, regardless of what particular activity is involved," Yuhnke said. "What's interesting to me is that president had to reach back to 2006 to find something he could showboat with — that he couldn't find something more recent."

That was a point made by a bipartisan duo of senators this week: Congress and the Obama administration already overhauled the review process as part of the last highway bill.

"We are concerned that your administration is not making use of important tools Congress has given it to accomplish this goal," Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri wrote in a letter to Trump on Thursday. "It is perplexing that the administration has not taken full advantage of the powerful tools Congress gave it... to accomplish those goals."

The review process is important in part because Trump has called for an increase in infrastructure investment. Though Democrats and Republicans have squabbled over what that effort might look like, the administration has promised repeatedly to upgrade the nation's roads, bridges and airports.

Developers — but also elected officials — have criticized the pace of federal environmental reviews of major developments, which a 2014 Government Accountability Office study found took about five years on average.

Part of the Trump administration's review is being led by Reed S. Cordish, a member of a prominent Baltimore development firm who joined the administration earlier this year and is heading up an office of innovation in the White House. Cordish told The Sun earlier this year that streamlining the review process was one of the focuses of that group.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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