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Editorial: States construction detour needs caution
Bill seeking to bypass environmental, historical review on building projects needs closer study
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The Georgia General Assembly is much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.

Legislators in this year’s session have argued passionately about a handful of high profile issues, such as whether college students will have to keep their handguns in their cars rather than their dorm rooms, and the propriety of forcing religious leaders to ask the “Will you take?” question of same-sex couples.

But while a few hot-button issues grab the newspaper headlines and the attention of electronic media’s talking heads, dozens of other less noted bills work their way through the system without garnering much fanfare.

Such is the case with Senate Bill 346, which proposes to make a few minor changes to the wording of definitions relative to the state’s “Environmental Policy Act.” Those changes would allow road and airport building projects costing up to $100 million and not including any federal funding to bypass some of the existing reporting requirements for environmental protection and preservation of potentially significant archaeological sites.

Environmentalists and historic preservationists spoke out against the legislation last week. Meanwhile, the bill’s primary author, Sen. Brandon Beach, downplayed their concerns and insisted the bill would only reduce paperwork and red tape associated with major road projects and would not eliminate compliance with environmental regulations nor ignore the need to preserve historical locales or cemeteries and burial grounds.

Groups such as the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the Georgia River Network and the Georgia Council for Professional Archaeologists all expressed their opposition to the bill, with the president of the archaeologist group saying the legislation would “gut” the 25-year-old Georgia Environmental Policy Act.

At a House subcommittee meeting Thursday, opponents expressed their concerns that allowing state funded transportation projects to move forward without the current protections of the GEPA could result in environmental damage and the loss of significant archaeological sites, such as historic sites important to the state’s Native American cultures.

Beach insists that’s not the case. He says the intent is to speed up desperately needed road projects that can be delayed for months by administrative paperwork and consultative reviews, and that such projects would still be subject to laws protecting natural resources, endangered species, cemeteries and other historic properties.

Maybe it’s because the legislation has flown under the radar for most of this year’s session and hasn’t had the public airing it needs to engender public trust, but somehow we’re not totally convinced that the proposed paperwork reduction wouldn’t also result in the cutting of some road construction corners.

The chief engineer for the state’s Department of Transportation did little to allay public concerns over the bill during Thursday’s committee meeting. She said if the legislation is approved, the DOT and the state’s Department of Natural Resources would then work together to create policies to determine what needs to be “surveyed, documented, mitigated ...”

The devil is always in the details, and the drafting of such policies after passage of the proposed legislation would, on the surface, seem to offer great opportunity to bypass some of the existing regulations the bill’s author is adamant would still govern road construction.

We understand the thought process behind the bill. Road projects do take an incredibly long time to complete, and some of that extended timetable is because of requirements to satisfy environmental and archaeological concerns. But those concerns are often quite legitimate and valid.

There’s a certain arbitrariness to the legislation that is curious. If the goal is legitimate, as the sponsoring senator says, then why have a cap on the size of the project to be exempted from the existing requirement? Is expediting a project costing $105 million of less importance than speeding up a project costing $95 million?

What happens when, as road projects often tend to do, a project starts off with a $90 million budget but the final price tag is $110 million? Do you then go back and do the paperwork after the fact?

The bill would only apply to projects built without federal funds, which would have to satisfy federal environmental laws regardless. So are local governments searching for funding likely to give up federal dollars if they can expedite projects by bypassing the current state standards?

The arbitrariness of the spending cap aside, the bigger issue is whether passage of the legislation will increase the likelihood of environmentally destructive road building, or projects that ignore historic preservation concerns. Supporters of the legislation to this point have failed to put forth a convincing argument that such will not be the case. The idea of passing the bill now and trusting that enabling legislation later will address issues as important as water quality, erosion and animal habitats is more than a little disconcerting.

The state is flush with revenues from new taxes collected specifically for the purpose of improving transportation. We understand the desperate need to get the bulldozers moving on dozens of projects all across Georgia. But we can’t be so desperate to get those projects done that we ignore their full potential impacts.

The proposal has passed the Senate, but we would suggest the House let this legislation die for this session of the General Assembly. Those who think it a valid effort can bring it back next year for a much more public review of true intent and potential unintended consequences. As it stands now, it looks to be an effort to get money more quickly to those parties heavily invested in the commercialization of the state’s road-building efforts than it does a thoughtful effort at reformation of the state’s environmental policies.

If GEPA needs to be revised and updated, lawmakers should make their case and put forth a comprehensive proposal for doing so. That’s better than trying to go through a back door with legislation that attempts to alter the playing field simply by creating exemptions to certain definitions in the law.

To send a letter to the editor, use this form or send to The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.