On June 11th, a tanker truck caught fire under an overpass bridge on route I-95 north of Philadelphia, completely destroying the bridge and halting traffic in both directions. The collapse became a national news story, as it affected hundreds of thousands of commuters who rely on the highway. The optimistic projections estimated that a temporary fix would take “at best” six weeks, and more judicious projections expected it to take several months. But a mere 12 days later, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro announced that the bridge had reopened.
I-95’s fast repair offers useful policy lessons that can help us improve how we build infrastructure. Pennsylvania law gives the Governor authority to respond to disasters, including authority to waive any law or regulation that impedes a speedy and effective response.1 This powerful authority allows officials to avoid the ordinary obstacle course of permits, procedures, and regulations and to simply execute the most effective response available. From Governor Shapiro’s Disaster Declaration:
“Further, I hereby suspend the provisions of any other regulatory statue proscribing the procedures for conduct of Commonwealth business, or the orders, rules or regulations of any Commonwealth agency, if strict compliance with the provisions of any statute, order, rules or regulations would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with this emergency event.”
Environmental review often delays infrastructure projects, but Governor Shapiro made sure that “environmental permits that normally require months could be secured in days,” even going so far as to have the Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary stay on the job site to provide his personal sign off when needed.
This flexible approach immediately delivered results: repair crews were contracted within days of the collapse in a no-bid process, and worked 24/7 to reopen the highway. It also allowed for genuinely creative solutions: the underpass was filled with a material made from recycled glass manufactured locally, allowing the Pennsylvania DOT to avoid supply chain issues (and each of the 800 trucks delivering the glass had an escort from state police). The lighter material also allowed crews to avoid damaging vital water and sewer lines that could not have supported a gravel infill. Most dramatically, a NASCAR jet engine was brought in to help dry the pavement in case of rain, allowing construction crews to continue working regardless of weather conditions.
Governor Shapiro’s disaster declaration also allowed the state to immediately make $7 million available, enabling agencies to immediately move to implementation. Soon after construction began, the federal government announced it would pick up the bill for repairs by using funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The repairs also enjoyed a rare level of public support. Disaster relief efforts unite public opinion, sweeping away the usual political bickering and misaligned incentives that hamper infrastructure projects. Governor Shapiro built public support for rapid repair of I-95 by setting up a continuous livestream of the construction efforts. The resultant visibility of the project limited the ability of political interests to use it as leverage for rent-seeking.2
But fast infrastructure processes are rare for a reason. Delays and cost overruns have become so ubiquitous that the public barely even pays attention to them. The days of politicians delivering on infrastructure projects before the next election are long over. Today, it is common to find incredible concept art for proposed infrastructure, only to read the fine print and see the proposed plans are scheduled to be completed in the late 2030s.
These delays occur because a web of formal procedures and approvals facilitates hyper-local control and benefits project opponents. For half a century, this increasingly tangled web has created delays and local veto points that tie the hands of planners trying to build infrastructure efficiently.
Formal process requirements add paperwork, but they also create discrete opportunities for political leverage that project opponents can exploit. Regulatory standards, community input, public meetings, and environmental reviews can be used to hold up approval, demand irrelevant concessions, or litigate final decisions.
Compare the smooth process for I-95 repairs to the ongoing four-year process to approve congestion pricing in New York City. Congestion pricing, a plan to tax congestion in Manhattan, has faced fierce political opposition from suburban residents who don’t want to pay the fees.
Opponents of congestion pricing found leverage in the federal environmental review process required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).3 Congestion pricing was approved by the New York state legislature in 2019, but because the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had to sign off on congestion pricing’s impact on federal highways, the entire project had to complete a procedurally mandated NEPA review. This process handed the Trump administration an opportunity to delay congestion pricing, which it took by refusing to decide what level of environmental review was required.
Even once the review moved forward under the Biden administration, the political opposition to congestion pricing forced the MTA4 to spend three years generating a 4,007 page document that attempted to account for every possible environmental impact of congestion pricing. Environmental reviews under NEPA are vulnerable to legal challenges, which pushes agencies to write unreasonably long and arduous “litigation-proof” documents.
After three years and thousands of pages of review, the MTA has finally completed the procedural requirements to show that the project had no substantial impacts on the environment. But NEPA’s vulnerability to lawsuits offers opponents leverage even now. Politicians including New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Congressman Josh Gottheimer, Bill Pascrell Jr., and Senator Bob Menendez have threatened to sue FHWA for not completing an even longer environmental review. While their opposition to congestion pricing is sincere, insisting on more NEPA review is clearly in bad faith — none of these politicians would be satisfied with a 5,000 or 6,000 page review. What they want is to block congestion pricing, and NEPA’s formal requirements offer them leverage.
Addressing misaligned political incentives should be at the core of reform efforts. Perhaps the brightest spot in the success of I-95 repairs is how much credit Governor Shapiro and President Biden gained for building fast. When politicians are rewarded for building quickly and efficiently, and held accountable when they don’t, then the focus can shift from following procedures to delivering outcomes.
In many ways our current infrastructure approval systems are backward: procedural requirements, local input, public meetings and regulation are treated as more important than the end goal of actually building something. Many of the procedures that cause delay and obstruction are well-intentioned. Take the example of NEPA: it really is important for our government to consider environmental protection when making decisions. But by mandating procedural reviews for every government action and leaving these reviews open to legal challenges, our system gives a veto to project opponents, no matter their motivations. We need a better process to ensure environmental protections while allowing developers to build projects efficiently.
It’s worth noting that the government agencies that face fewer procedural delays work much more effectively. The Federal Reserve and the FDIC are empowered to act quickly to mitigate financial contagion. The Department of Defense can have large weapons delivered to Ukraine in under 48 hours — no public meetings or multi-thousand page environmental review required.
The I-95 case suggests an empowered government can act quickly and creatively to provide vital public goods. Governments can walk and chew gum at the same time: repair crews worked 24/7 without skimping on safety. But reform efforts must take lessons from disaster repair and apply them to more prosaic infrastructure projects. To improve state capacity at delivering infrastructure on time, we’ll need to both reward politicians for speedy action, and remove the endless procedural requirements that enable obstruction.
The governor can waive Pennsylvania laws or obligations that are not protected by federal law or the Pennsylvania state constitution.
For example: local governments may demand irrelevant concessions, politicians might withhold support until their pet project moves forward, or contractors could hold out for a bigger contract.
Mercifully, I-95 repairs avoided federal NEPA review because the repairs were within the existing highway right of way.
The MTA wrote the review on behalf of the FHWA through a memorandum of understanding.