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Donald Trump
stated on January 30, 2018 in the State of the Union address:
"America is a nation of builders. We built the Empire State Building in just one year. Isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a minor permit approved for the building of a simple road?"
true half-true
John Kruzel
By John Kruzel January 30, 2018

Does it take 10 years to get a permit to build a road, as Donald Trump said?

President Donald Trump in his State of the Union address repeated a long-standing complaint about how excessive bureaucratic red tape holds up the construction of federal projects.

In championing a regulatory rollback, Trump noted that the regulatory burden has grown heavier with time.

"America is a nation of builders. We built the Empire State Building in just one year," he said. "Isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a minor permit approved for the building of a simple road?"

We decided to look at how long it took to build the Empire State building, and the length of the current permitting process.

How long did it take to build the Empire State Building?

A historical timeline from the Empire State Realty Trust states that construction began on March 17, 1930. The building was finished one year and 45 days later.

So Trump is close in terms of the year-long timeline of construction he gave.

However, we were unable to find how long the permitting process took, and the Empire State Realty Trust doesn’t offer any clues. It notes only that several parties formed Empire State, Inc. in 1929, and name Alfred E. Smith, a former governor of New York, to head the corporation.

It’s unclear whether or when they applied for a permit.

Can it take 10 years to get a permit approved?

According to the lead infrastructure aide on the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, the permitting process for how the government builds roads, bridges, rails and pipelines is now an average of under five years.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Alexander Herrgott telling a Washington conference in January that he hopes the administration will "take permit delivery times from what is now an average of 4.7 years down to two years."

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That 4.7 year figure also appeared in a 2015 study by the law firm Arnold & Porter into the government permitting process.

The firm found that the average length of an infrastructure project — from the beginning with a governmental environmental study until its completion — spanned 4.7 years.

A 2014 Government Accountability Office study, citing third-party estimates, put the average at 4.6 years.

However, a study commissioned by the Treasury Department under President Barack Obama found the average time to complete an environmental review was longer than 4.7 years in 2015 — and that duration has grown through recent decades.

It cited studies conducted for the Federal Highway Administration, which found the time increased from 2.2 years in the 1970s, to 4.4 years in the 1980s, to 5.1 years in the 1995 to 2001 period, to 6.6 years in 2011.

Yet another study, by a pro-deregulation group called Common Good, says infrastructure often takes 10 years to be approved.

But according to the Wall Street Journal, "Outside experts say actual review times vary widely based on the scope of a project and other environmental factors."

Among the timeframes described in various studies, Trump is picking the high end. It bears repeating that his own White House aide to the Council on Environmental Quality said the average was 4.7 years.

The White House also did not provide an example of a "minor permit" for a "simple road" taking 10 years.

Our ruling

Trump said, "America is a nation of builders. We built the Empire State Building in just one year. Isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a minor permit approved for a simple road?"

The Empire State Building was constructed in one year and 45 days — which means that part of Trump’s claim was pretty close.

Recent government studies say the permit approval time ranges from 4.6 to 6.6 years. The only study we found that claims a 10-year approval is common comes from a pro-deregulation group, which raises questions about its reliability.

We rate this Half True.

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"America is a nation of builders. We built the Empire State Building in just one year. Isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a minor permit approved for the building of a simple road?"
State of the Union address
Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Our Sources

Donald Trump, State of the Union address, Jan. 30, 2018

Empire State Realty Trust website, "Historical Timeline"

Wall Street Journal, "Trump’s Infrastructure Push Makes Effort to Speed Permits," Jan. 25, 2018

Arnold & Porter, "Expediting Environmental Review and Permitting of Infrastructure Projects: The 2015 FAST Act and NEPA," Dec. 22, 2015

Treasury Department-commissioned study, "40 Proposed U.S. Transportation and Water Infrastructure Projects"

Common Good, "Two Years, Not Ten Years: Redesigning Infrastructure Approvals," 2015

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