Infrastructure Projects: Actions Needed to Fully Develop Performance Schedules for Environmental Reviews

GAO-20-19 Published: Oct 29, 2019. Publicly Released: Oct 29, 2019.
Jump To:
Fast Facts

The 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act sought to streamline and improve the federal environmental review of and authorization process for 10 kinds of major infrastructure projects, including pipelines and renewable energy production.

The act created a council to oversee the actions of the reviewing agencies and establish timelines for how long environmental reviews and authorizations should take for these kinds of projects.

The council has started work on the timelines for three infrastructure areas that account for about 80% of projects. We recommended improvements to the process the council is using to develop its timelines.

Bulldozer and construction workers

Bulldozer and construction workers

Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

GAO found that the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council's (Permitting Council) process for developing and assessing member agencies' implementation of best practices for environmental reviews and authorizations, as required by Title 41 of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act (FAST-41), was generally consistent with key features of effective interagency collaboration that GAO has previously identified, such as having shared goals and establishing mechanisms to measure performance.The Permitting Council, an interagency body established by FAST-41, oversees the implementation of FAST-41's provisions to streamline the federal permitting process.

As of July 2019, the Permitting Council has not issued performance schedules for ten infrastructure sectors, as mandated by FAST-41, due to a lack of sufficient project data and resource constraints. These schedules are to serve as baselines for environmental reviews and authorizations for projects covered under FAST-41. The Permitting Council has taken steps to develop performance schedules for the three infrastructure sectors—pipelines, renewable energy production, and electricity transmission—that account for 80 percent of the 43 FAST-41 projects (see figure). GAO found that the process the Permitting Council used to develop draft performance schedules for the three sectors did not fully implement two of three selected best practices for project schedules identified by GAO: (1) maintaining the baseline schedule and (2) conducting an analysis of potential risks. For example, the Permitting Council's process included identifying the relevant environmental review actions for infrastructure projects, but it did not take into account how potential risks, such as incomplete applications by project sponsors, could result in delays of the actions. Without incorporating these selected best practices, the Permitting Council will be constrained in developing defensible performance schedules against which to evaluate whether the FAST-41 process has improved the environmental review and authorization process.

Infrastructure Projects Covered under Title 41 of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, by Lead Agency and Sector, as of July 2019

\\prod\userdata\FR_Data\ormondj\Desktop\FigD_5-102826_jo.tif

Why GAO Did This Study

FAST-41 outlined specific procedures for improving the timeliness, predictability, and transparency of the environmental review and authorization process for certain infrastructure projects in 10 specific sectors, including pipelines, renewable energy projects, and electricity transmission.

Congress included provisions in statute for GAO to review the efforts of the Permitting Council to implement FAST-41. This report examines, among other objectives, the Permitting Council's process for developing and assessing implementation of best practices for environmental reviews, and the steps the Permitting Council has taken to develop performance schedules for the 10 infrastructure sectors. GAO reviewed the Permitting Council's documents and guidance; evaluated the council's process for developing performance schedules against selected GAO best practices related to the development of the schedules; and interviewed officials from federal agencies that are members of the Permitting Council, as well as selected project sponsors selected based on several factors, including projects' status and infrastructure sector.  

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO recommends that the Executive Director of the Permitting Council incorporate selected best practices into its process for developing performance schedules for infrastructure projects covered under FAST-41. The Executive Director agreed with the recommendation and described current and planned actions to address it.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council The Executive Director of the Permitting Council should incorporate selected best practices we have identified (maintaining the baseline schedule and conducting a risk analysis) into the Permitting Council's process for developing performance schedules for the infrastructure sectors covered under FAST-41. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
Title 41 of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act (FAST-41) required that the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (Permitting Council) oversee agencies' implementation of FAST-41 and develop performance schedules for each of the ten FAST-41 infrastructure sectors, among other things. These performance schedules are required to include the durations for most environmental reviews and authorizations for projects within each infrastructure sector, which would serve as baselines for project timetables. Based on GAO's Schedule Assessment Guide, our best practices work for assessing a schedule, we selected three practices -capturing all activities, conducting a schedule risk analysis, and maintaining a baseline schedule-that we determined to be most relevant to the development of the Permitting Council's baseline performance schedules. In 2019, we reported that, according to officials in the Office of the Executive Director, the Permitting Council had taken steps to develop performance schedules for three of the ten FAST-41 infrastructure sectors-pipelines, renewable energy production, and electricity transmission. However, the Permitting Council had not fully implemented two of the three selected best practices-maintaining a baseline schedule and conducting a risk analysis-for developing performance schedules. Our prior work noted that a key aspect of maintaining a baseline schedule is to develop a basis document that explains the overall approach of the program, including a detailed explanation or rationale for the basic approach to estimating key environmental and authorization durations for the sectors. While the Permitting Council indicated that it considered some of these issues in developing the draft schedules, it did not create a basis document, which would have provided agencies with an understanding of the schedules' development and underlying assumptions. With regard to conducting a risk analysis the Permitting Council did not conduct a formal risk analysis because it does not perform the environmental reviews and authorizations and could not provide an assessment of the potential risks. Without implementing these selected best practices the Permitting Council may not be able to develop defensible baseline schedules against which to measure program performance. Therefore, we recommended that the Permitting Council should incorporate selected best practices we have identified (maintaining the baseline schedule and conducting a risk analysis) into its process for developing performance schedules for the infrastructure sectors covered under the FAST-41. In 2021, we confirmed that the Permitting Council incorporated these practices into its development of new baseline performance schedules for environmental reviews and authorizations. In order to maintain the baseline schedule in accordance with our recommendation, the Council developed a basis document that included descriptions of the factors that affect a given project schedule and the underlying factors the Council used to develop the key environmental and authorization durations for the sector performance schedules. This document described the methodology used to calculate the baseline schedules and stated that the Permitting Council intends to update these schedules, making modifications with the collection of new project data. In addition, the Permitting Council conducted a risk analysis of the project timelines by analyzing project timelines and delays for relevant infrastructure projects. The Permitting Council incorporated these uncertainties into the development of its baseline performance schedules. As a result of these actions, the Permitting Council will be better positioned to evaluate whether the FAST-41 process has improved the environmental review and authorization process.

Full Report

GAO Contacts