It is a welcome day when headlines focused on infrastructure make the front page. Of course, they provide inspiration for the blog. They also take my attention off, well, everything else.
Today’s headline was certainly an eye-catcher: “Elon Musk says he has ‘verbal’ government approval for hyperloop.” Anyone spellbound by the possibility of the hyperloop technology would sit up and take notice. But yours truly, fascinated by both innovative infrastructure projects and methods to permit that innovation more quickly, definitely raised my standing desk to read the article.
“Verbal approval???” That Mr. Musk had a conversation with someone (unidentified) and that someone from some office (also unidentified) provided some form of government agreement (what kind?) to promote the underground tunneling necessary for the theoretical 29-minute trip between Washington, DC and New York City is intriguing to say the least.
This news came on the heels of the administrations’ latest Executive Order, this one announcing the formation of an infrastructure Advisory Council. According to the EO, this Council “shall study the scope and effectiveness of, and make findings and recommendations to the President regarding, Federal Government funding, support, and delivery of infrastructure projects in several sectors (long list ensues)… and other such sectors as determined by the Council.” If the hyperloop team has information concerning how it was able to obtain this verbal approval, I am certain this new Advisory Council would be all ears.
Amazingly, White House officials did not dismiss the idea of verbal assent out of hand. As a member of a homeowner’s association who has to get approval in writing for the color of any stain I would apply to my aging deck, the notion of a verbal approval for boring a system of tunnels deep under some of our most populous cities (never mind the various entry/exit points necessary to hop off the loop) is liberating.
Such a process would clearly redefine an environmental impact statement – it could simply be someone’s statement!
In all seriousness, this exciting news story highlights the true tension between innovation and regulation. Advocates of autonomous driving technology are forging ahead at lightning speed, even as safety regulations struggle to catch up or at least stay out of the way. Drone technology has revolutionized the concept of aerial delivery, even as aviation experts attempt to balance that new form of traffic with existing uses of airspace. Even now seemingly quaint advances like high-speed rail systems must address fairly typical land use and natural resources concerns.
As much as fans of expedited project approval might applaud the idea of a quick “yeah, go ahead and do that,” the messy part of infrastructure approval – reaching out to affected stakeholders – remains essential. Inviting the opinions from potential “NIMBYs” may seem counter-productive, but it also informs and, in many instance, improves the underlying project.
The President’s new Advisory Council, the relatively new Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, the Council on Environmental Quality, and any other entity now tasked with finding a way to incorporate streamlining into routine project delivery might envy the “verbal approval” model. It seems more than possible, however, to encourage private sector ingenuity and at the same time employ public disclosure and approval processes to educate even the current and future Thomas Edisons of the world.