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Environmental Rollbacks Loom in Federal Transportation Bills

Senate, House, Bush cannot agree on funding, but support cutting protections

October 7, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


While the President and Congress are unable to agree on federal transportation funding levels, they support rolling back related environmental regulations.

Last week, Congress punted for the sixth time in less than 12 months on funding the nation’s transportation needs. It did so by passing yet another continuing resolution extending the current transportation funding bill, known as TEA-21, which is the six-year spending plan that was due to expire last fall. Last week’s extension means that the three-way traffic jam among competing Senate, House, and the Bush administration versions of new TEA-21 legislation will continue for months and leave long-range plans for federal spending on new pavement and better public transportation in limbo.

Despite the gridlock, the three bills do have one thing in common that alarms some environmental activists: Each rolls back some of the longstanding environmental regulations that accompany federal transportation funding. But these rollbacks, which would affect the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Congestion Mitigation Air Quality program, are attracting little attention.

During the drawn-out TEA-21 renewal debate, Michigan’s Congressional delegation has concentrated its attention on increasing the state’s share of federal gas tax revenues. As the state’s federal lawmakers often point out, Michigan pays more in federal gas taxes than it receives in federal transportation funding, making it a “donor” state. But Michigan’s federal lawmakers have said little about the proposed environmental rollbacks in the competing renewal bills, even though many of the lawmakers have pro-environmental voting records.

Neha Bhatt, an associate Washington representative of the Sierra Club who has followed federal transit and pollution legislation for years, says that the push for the rollbacks started at the top of the federal government. 

“A lot of these rollbacks regarding clean air and NEPA were included in the White House proposal,” Ms. Bhatt said. “The Bush administration sort of set the tone.” But, she added, Congress, and especially the Senate, seems to be echoing that tone by supporting weaker monitoring of, and reduced accountability for, traffic-induced pollution.

A Wide-Ranging Rollback
The attacks on environmental protections in the stalled transportation legislation are many and varied. The Bush administration, for instance, would weaken the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act. Currently, NEPA requires that the government consider the environmental impact of its proposed federal actions before approving them; the Bush proposal instead allows environmental reviews for an entire “class of projects” rather than individual ones. This, critics say, could allow environmentally destructive projects to escape public scrutiny.

The administration also wants to limit citizen challenges to new transportation projects by limiting the time people have to bring environmental claims to court.

The House bill shares many of these provisions, while the Senate version’s language would completely eliminate citizen input concerning construction of roads in recreational areas. Here the Bush administration goes even further, transferring the evaluation of transportation projects’ effects on recreational areas, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, and historically valuable settings from resource managers with relevant expertise to the Department of Transportation.

Such limits would leave Americans more vulnerable to the host of other environmental rollbacks contained in all three bills. For example, the three bills modify the landmark, bipartisan Clean Air Act, which was passed under President Nixon in 1970 and updated in 1977 and 1990 under Presidents Carter and Bush Sr. The Act sets national air quality and monitoring standards, holds states accountable for meeting them, and requires that new transportation projects not violate existing air quality standards for 20 years.

Less Testing, More ‘Grace’
Both the Bush and Senate bills, however, would cut that long-term commitment to clean air, requiring compliance with the Clean Air Act for as little as ten years. All three bills would also require less-frequent testing for air pollution in areas with histories of serious air quality problems. The House bill would allow a new, 12-month “grace period” for such areas, allowing them to continue receiving funding for transportation projects even after it becomes clear that the project would violate an area’s air quality plan. The Senate bill exploits a mandated change in how the government measures ozone levels to effectively allow more of it.

The Senate bill would also change legal definitions to exempt many transportation projects from clean air standards so they can receive funding that might otherwise be denied for environmental and planning reasons. And both the House and Senate bills lift the requirement that areas with high levels of air pollution from particulate matter, or soot, conform to clean air standards. They also both drop requirements that areas previously high in ozone and carbon monoxide levels continue to measure their pollution levels.

The Senate and the House are proposing changes to the Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Program. Both chambers propose that the program, established in 1991 to fund transportation projects that improve air quality, begin funding electronic toll collection and roadway weather management. Critics say these changes would not improve air quality but would instead divert resources from truly helpful projects, such as improved public transit.

The Senate bill would allow metropolitan planning organizations such as the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which funds metropolitan Detroit’s transportation projects, to disregard the health effects of vehicle-related pollution when making decisions.

The House and Senate proposals do part ways with Bush administration’s bill in one environmentally important way. The Bush bill would reduce the federal share of funding for new public transit projects, which can greatly reduce auto air pollution, from 80 percent to 50 percent, while continuing to fund new highway construction at the current 80 percent. According to the Sierra Club’s Ms. Bhatt, “It’s just blatantly pushing one transportation over another.” The Senate and the House bills would continue to fund transit projects at their current 80 percent federal, 20 percent local formula.

Michigan Lawmakers Chase One Kind of Green
The environmental rollbacks contained in the Bush, Senate, and House versions of the TEA-21 reauthorization bills have not stopped most members of the Michigan Congressional delegation from voting for the legislation. All but two members of the Michigan Congressional delegation, Republican Representatives Mike Rogers and Nick Smith, voted for the now-stalled House reauthorization package. Representative Rogers said in a statement on his Web site that he opposed the House bill because Michigan’s return on the gas tax would drop from 88 cents to 79 cents for every dollar. Mr. Rogers also opposes the bill’s increased spending on bike paths and other, special “earmarked” projects. Mr. Smith’s Web site makes no mention of his transportation vote.

Meanwhile, other federal lawmakers from Michigan have issued press releases trumpeting their success in bringing transportation money to their district, but have said little regarding the changes in environmental regulations that loom in the TEA bills.

According to their statements, Democratic U.S. Representative Bart Stupak won $14 million for new road and highway projects in northern Michigan with the House version of TEA-21. Democrat Representative Dale Kildee won $3.5 million for highways and transit in Saginaw County, $7.5 million for Genessee County, and $3 million for Bay City and Tuscola Counties. And Democratic Representative John Conyers won $16 million for Detroit, including $9.4 million for the Detroit Department of Transportation Timed Transfer Center and for providing childcare at transit transfer facilities.

Michigan’s two Democratic senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, and several U.S. representatives from both parties say that increasing Michigan’s return on the gas tax is their highest federal transportation policy priority for the new TEA-21 bill. Senators Levin and Stabenow are urging passage of the Senate version because it would raise Michigan’s rate of return on its contribution to the highway trust fund to 95 cents over a six-year period. The increase would fund more security at Michigan’s border crossings; provide Michigan with $7.4 billion over six years — an increase of $2.1 billion over the previous highway bill — for roads, bridges, and transit; and, it is claimed, create approximately 99,000 new jobs as a result of transportation investment.

Some Have Good Records on Other Kind of Green
Many of Michigan’s federal lawmakers who are supporting their respective chambers’ bills, which contain environmental rollbacks, have previously exhibited strongly pro-transit or pro-environmental positions.

For example, Republican U.S. Representative Vernon Ehler lists raising overall transit funding nationally as a priority, a fundamentally pro-environmental stance. He will sit on the House-Senate conference committee that will shape the compromise bill that eventually lands on Mr. Bush’s desk. Democratic U.S. Representative Carolyn Kilpatrick has long fought for better transit funding for Detroit and for building a light rail system connecting downtown Detroit to Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Senator Levin supports many Smart Growth issues, including funding Amtrak, investing in high-speed rail, and offering workers who use public transit, bikes, or walking the same benefits that workers who drive receive.

Meanwhile, Representative Kildee has called on the Bush administration to stop rolling back environmental protection laws such as the Clean Air and Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. He also criticized the administration for its attempts to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its reluctance to impose limits on mercury emissions. And Representative John Dingell, a Democrat, helped author the National Environmental Policy Act.

As Congress repeatedly passes transportation funding extensions, the delay in approving a new, complete, six-year bill, which would almost certainly increase Michigan’s share of some financing formulas, has so far cost the state, according to one calculation, over $325 million. So pressure to act without further delay continues to grow.

What is not clear, however, is how rolling back longstanding environmental protections will accelerate action on the long-delayed legislation, ensure that the bill will correct inequitable distribution formulas, or increase the mobility of people and goods.

Carolyn Kelly, who served as an intern this summer on the Institute’s news desk, is a senior at the University of Chicago. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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