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High Above the Water, but Awash in Red Tape

N.Y. Times, Jan. 2, 2013

By Sam Roberts

It seemed ingenious at the time: Elevate the deck of the existing Bayonne Bridge to accommodate the giant cargo ships that will begin passing through the Panama Canal in 2015 after the project to widen and deepen it is scheduled to be finished. Building a new bridge or tunneling under Kill Van Kull would have been much more expensive and would have required years of regulatory reviews.

That was back in 2009. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey first spent more than six months importuning various federal offices to serve as the lead agency for an environmental review. The law is vague about which agency is responsible. The Coast Guard finally agreed.

Since then, the Port Authority’s “fast-track” approach to a project that will not alter the bridge’s footprint has generated more than 5,000 pages of federally mandated archaeological, traffic, fish habitat, soil, pollution and economic reports that have cost over $2 million. A historical survey of every building within two miles of each end of the bridge alone cost $600,000 — even though none would be affected by the project.

After four years of work, the environmental assessment was issued in May and took into consideration comments from 307 organizations or individuals. The report invoked 207 acronyms, including M.B.T.A. (Migratory Bird Treaty Act) and N.L.R. (No Longer Regulated). Fifty-five federal, state and local agencies were consulted and 47 permits were required from 19 of them. Fifty Indian tribes from as far away as Oklahoma were invited to weigh in on whether the project impinged on native ground that touches the steel-arch bridge’s foundation.

Maybe it would have been easier to lower the water than to raise the bridge. (In fact, the channel had already been dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers in anticipation of the Panama Canal project.)

The approval process for the Bayonne Bridge reconstruction has become a case study, critics say, in the bureaucratic roadblocks imposed by decades-old federal environmental regulations.

“Environmental review has evolved into an academic exercise like a game of who can find the most complications,” said Philip K. Howard, a lawyer who cites the Bayonne Bridge in his forthcoming book, “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government.” “The Balkanization of authority among different agencies and levels of government creates a dynamic of buck-passing.”

Those complications are a particular concern among local officials in the Northeast, where a public works program is often intended both to help an ailing economy and to salvage aging bridges and highways, since most projects are likely to be replacements (brand-new ones would require even more rigorous environmental reviews). The sweeping final environmental impact statement that was required before the Port Authority could begin replacing the nearby Goethals Bridge took almost 10 years to complete.

The only reason a federal review was required at all for the Bayonne project was that the bridge spans a navigable waterway — even though raising the deck to 215 feet from about 151 feet above the waterline of Kill Van Kull, the tidal strait that separates Staten Island from Bayonne, N.J., will facilitate navigation rather than impede it.

“We’re not proposing to build a nuclear plant on a pristine mountain lake,” said Patrick J. Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority. “We’re not building a bridge, we’re not knocking a bridge down, we don’t think there’ll be any increase in vehicular traffic. The environmental impact is more energy-efficient ships. They will emit less schmutz per container and per pair of Nikes.”

Even as construction began in June, environmental groups and civic groups challenged the review process in a federal lawsuit. They argued that bigger containers being unloaded in Port Newark and Port Elizabeth would result in more truck traffic through Newark and other poor neighborhoods already polluted with diesel fumes and saddled with congested streets.

“It assumes a more efficient port will cause people to buy more sneakers and iPads,” Mr. Foye said dismissively. The case is still pending.

“The environmental process for public infrastructure is too long, costly and uncertain,” he said. “Public infrastructure ought to be treated differently, especially replacement of public infrastructure. And there ought to be someone in the process on the federal side who is looking at the impact of economic development and job retention.”

As it is, the project manager, Joann Papageorgis, said the existing deck would be removed in two years after the locks of the Panama Canal have been widened to 180 feet from 110 feet and lengthened to 1,400 feet from 1,050 feet. That means ships carrying as many as 12,000 containers will pass under the Bayonne Bridge — the maximum today is 9,000 containers. A new roadway for the bridge is to be completed by mid-2017; the current bridge will be partly closed.

The cost is estimated at $1.3 billion. The cost of a new bridge or a tunnel would have been about $4 billion. The new bridge will have wider lanes, bicycle and pedestrian pathways and the capacity to add public transit.

The entire project, from conception to completion, is expected to take less than a decade — with the environmental review accounting for nearly half that time. As cumbersome as it was, the process was expedited by a presidential directive to speed construction of the Bayonne Bridge and six other public works projects across the country.

And despite the protracted environmental review period, Ms. Papageorgis said the project was being done at warp speed when compared with other public works projects. (Consider, for example, the Second Avenue subway line in Manhattan.)

“In my 40 years, this is the fastest I’ve ever seen an environmental assessment get done,” Ms. Papageorgis said. “We’re being criticized for rushing it.”

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