High Above the Water, but Awash in Red Tape

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.

Read more of this The New York Times article by Sam Roberts by clicking here.

Photo: Michael Kirby Smith/The New York Times