The House today passed on voice vote the Rural Broadband Permitting Efficiency Act (HR 4824), which would establish a voluntary program for delegating to states and tribal authorities the permitting authority for broadband facilities within existing operational rights of way on National Forest Service lands and lands controlled by the Department of the Interior.
The bill would create a categorical exclusion from environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act for projects in rights of way that have already had a NEPA review. It would also create a process for designating a lead permitting agency for projects that span multiple federal land management agencies’ jurisdiction. The House Natural Resources Committee approved the bill in June (TR Daily, June 6).
The delegation of the NEPA reviews to states is modeled on a successful program run by the Federal Highway Administration, which similarly allows states to take the lead on highway projects running through federal lands, and the categorical exclusion for highway-adjacent projects would take advantage of the fact that broadband infrastructure is often built along highways, where the natural environment has already been disturbed, and environmental impacts have already been carefully considered, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Curtis (R., Utah).
NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield, who testified at a Natural Resources Committee legislative hearing on behalf of the bill (TR Daily, May 18), said in a statement today, “Rural broadband providers must overcome the costly challenges of distance and density to deploy and sustain their networks. Freeing up resources by eliminating cumbersome and time-consuming permitting processes can help promote the deployment of broadband networks which support a high quality of life in rural America.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) introduced a similar measure, the Highway Rights-of-Way Permitting Efficiency Act (S 604), in the Senate last year (TR Daily, March 13, 2017). It has been referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works, where it is pending.