A “well-intentioned” statute passed in the 1970s to protect endangered species has become outdated and now poses a major hurdle to infrastructure upgrades across the country, according to the American Public Works Association (APWA).

In testimony to Congress this week, the APWA warned that state and local governments have been hamstrung by regulations under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) when trying to upgrade highways, water treatment facilities and other kinds of public infrastructure. In some cases, “critically needed infrastructure projects are stalled or prohibited entirely because of bureaucratically-imposed processes that fail to achieve goals mandated” by the ESA, APWA President Ron Calkins told the oversight panel of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee.

“We support federal protections of endangered species which balance the needs of the species with the need for public works professionals to build and maintain public safety infrastructure,” Calkins said. “At issue is the need to reform the Endangered Species Act to build stronger partnerships, to reduce delay and uncertainty for states, local governments, private industry, and individuals; and to provide greater administrative flexibility,” he said.

The Republican majority on the House resources committee is examining ways to modernize the ESA, which has not been reauthorized since 1988. While the law was intended to “preserve and recover domestic species from the brink of extinction,” it has now become “a tool for litigation” from environmental activist groups “that drains resources away from real recovery efforts on the state, tribal and local level and blocks job-creating economic activities,” according to the committee.

On the Senate side of the Capitol, there is also strong interest in reforming the ESA. Last month, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hosted a former Democratic governor to provide a detailed critique of the way the ESA functions today.

“Over time, the mix of regulations, court decisions, policy guidance and individual agency actions by Presidential administrations of different but still well intentioned views have created a nearly unworkable system,” former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) told the committee.

The ESA has “matured” into a “full blown, unfunded federal mandate,” Freudenthal wrote. “Our federal government simply ‘helicopters in’ with ESA requirements,” he said, but states end up bearing the burden of compliance.

“States are compelled to respond to listing petitions, species management directives, creation of adequate state regulatory mechanism, information requests, data and analysis disputes and meeting, after meeting, after meeting,” Freudenthal told the Senate committee.

At this week’s House hearing, Calkins – the APWA president – said state and local officials can find ways to meet the needs of their citizens and protect the environment if given more flexibility than the ESA currently provides.

“There is a need to balance endangered species and habitat preservation with the infrastructure development, operation, and maintenance needs of local citizens,” he said. “Such a local, balanced approach will provide the best options for preservation, growth, and management of our invaluable natural resources.”