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Presidential Permit Mess

By Doug Doan

For anyone who needed a reminder of just how botched and dysfunctional it is to build or improve a border crossing, take a look at the toxic debate over the Keystone Pipeline. Fierce politics, nasty in-fighting, delay, distortion and misdirection all become standard fare.

The Presidential Permit process was supposed to bring order and discipline to building anything across the border linking the U.S.-Canada or the U.S.-Mexico. The basic idea was to make sure that what we are doing on our side of the border matches and is complimented on the other side of the border in Canada or Mexico.

After all, it would be rather foolish to build a bridge across the Rio Grande into Mexico, or the Detroit River into Canada, if our neighbors to the north and south did not take similar actions to improve infrastructure on the other side of the border to make operations smooth and efficient. Since negotiations and coordination with the governments of Mexico and Canada is required, the Department of State became the lead agency to manage the Presidential permit process.

But what a mess it has become. Every new idea to build a road, bridge, border crossing, pipeline or lay a communications cable across the border now must navigate an increasingly complicated bureaucratic gauntlet. Every U.S. agency has a chance, and the ability, to thwart the project. And various interest groups are well aware of the opportunities to apply pressure to kill off even the best ideas.

I first learned just how difficult it is to receive a presidential permit to build across the border when I led and effort to build additional lanes across the port of entry at Nogales, Arizona. Our goal was to increase the number of lanes and alleviate traffic that was often backed up in mind-numbing six-hour delays.

Securing the funding for the project was easy. All the stakeholders in the United States and Mexico were wild with enthusiasm. But getting the Presidential Permit proved the most daunting.

One U.S. agency demanded reviews and study for building what they determined was “a navigable waterway.” I pointed out that Nogales was in the desert and the proposed addition would cross a dry gulch filled with snakes and old beer cans, but it didn’t matter. The bureaucracy had the project in its grip, and I was forced to bludgeon and batter my way through the bureaucracy to secure the permit.

More complicated projects, such as the Keystone Pipeline, along with the construction of new railways, roads, and bridges across the borders, are almost impossible. The process is daunting and the ability of political foes or incompetent bureaucrats to throttle the project is vast. The Keystone Pipeline is a recent reminder of dysfunction, but there are others too.

In Detroit, private owners of the Ambassador Bridge have long wished to use private money to improve and expand the infrastructure required to speed transit and alleviate the long lines that plague border crossings. But for years, those plans have been frustrated by a witches’ brew of personality conflicts and resentments. And, a Presidential Permit has been denied the owners to improve a bridge that they own. Meanwhile, proposed new crossings in California and Texas have been on the drawing board for more than 20 years and have still been unable to secure a Presidential Permit.

The time has come to reform the Presidential Permit process. Existing border crossings should immediately be given wider discretion to work directly with partners across the border to improve the many roads and bridges that now exist. Repairing, improving or expanding an existing crossing is a decision best made at the local level involving the stakeholder involved, not the U.S. State Department.

New and more complicated crossings, such as the Keystone Pipeline, are never going to be easy, but we should have the courage to make a “yes” or “no” decision on the merits of the proposed crossing and not take the easy way out and bury such projects in the bowels of the bureaucracy that requires waterway navigation studies before issuing a permit to cross the desert.