Three U.S. senators introduced legislation that could speed up installation of fiber optic broadband technology in highway rights of way, by streamlining the permitting process.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said: "One of the most efficient ways to close the opportunity and innovation gap between rural and urban communities is to expand broadband infrastructure. This effort is critical to improving education, transportation, public safety, healthcare and the economy."
Hatch – along with Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Steve Daines, R-Mont. – introduced the "Highway Rights-of-Way Permitting Efficiency Act of 2017," which among other things applies a "categorical exclusion" to broadband projects in existing highway rights of way so that such a project would not need an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement.
Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said in a statement with
the senators' press release that UDOT "has successfully partnered with the private sector to deploy broadband in support of highway operations. Unfortunately, the federal permitting process has, at times, slowed or inhibited installation of fiber with our private sector partners."
Braceras, who is also secretary/treasurer for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said the proposed bill would help speed broadband deployment, especially in rural areas, which in turn would facilitate "the merger of technology between motor vehicles and infrastructure, leading to greater mobility and increased safety on our nation's roads."
The bill sponsors said broadband providers currently may be required to obtain approval from multiple agencies, including the Federal Highway Administration, state DOTs, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.
"This process includes running the gamut with National Environmental Policy Act compliance, which often requires separate environmental assessments or impact statements for a single project," they said. "These duplicative reviews cause unnecessary years-long delays in processing and cost overruns. They also discourage providers and states from pursuing broadband deployment projects, particularly in rural areas."
So besides applying the categorical exclusion to broadband installations in existing highway ROW, the lawmakers said they built on an FHWA program under which some state DOTs have signed agreements to take on many of the federal agency's NEPA review requirements.
"This bill allows a state to opt into an agreement to take on the responsibility of environmental review – on behalf of the relevant federal agency," they said.
The bill would also designates a lead agency in the federal permitting process, to consolidate efforts from the executive branch and create a single point of contact for a broadband deployment project.