Highway Bill Drives Over Air Rules, Critics Say

By J.R. Pegg

June 20, 2003 (ENS) - The working draft of the nation's latest six year transportation spending plan includes several provisions that would fundamentally alter how states must balance transportation spending and planning with federal air pollution requirements.

Environmentalists fear the draft document signals the intent of some Republicans and the Bush administration to stuff rollbacks to clean air regulations into a bill expected to contain some $250 billion in transportation spending.

The provisions favor road building interests over environmental protection and public health, says Clean Air Trust Executive Director Frank O'Donnell, and are a classic case of "special interests seeking special deals."

The draft legislation, circulated last week within the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, would ease state compliance with the transportation conformity program of the Clean Air Act.

This program, which was created under the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, requires that state transportation plans conform to federal air quality standards set by the Act and contribute to the achievement of those goals.

But measures in the draft document create "special exemptions for motor vehicle pollution" that will make it nearly impossible for states to comply with clean air goals, according to Bill Becker, executive director of State Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials. traffic

Growing traffic is an increasing problem in many cities around the United States. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto.com)
Becker explained that the draft document shortens the planning period for conformity plans from 20 years to 10 years, a move that critics believe would allow the transportation sector to ignore its long term impacts on air pollution.

It adds a new 18 month grace period that allows transportation projects to move forward even if they are at odds with the air quality plan and reduces the frequency of periodic checks that monitor the consistency between transportation and air quality plans.

These changes negate the intent of Congress when it created the conformity program, Becker said, which was "to make sure transportation decisions conform to state air quality decisions, not the other way around."

They jeopardize a program that is working very well, Becker said, and would shift more responsibility to cleaning up pollution to other sectors of the economy, something that could prove extremely difficult.

"There is very little low hanging fruit left," Becker said.

"The conformity program does take time and effort, but it is not at all an unreasonable price to pay to ensure that the amount of pollution from motor vehicles does not undermine efforts to clean up the air."

In addition to the changes in the conformity program, the draft of the bill takes steps that critics believe would undermine and delay the implementation of new air pollution standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set tighter limits for ozone and particulate matter in 1997, but legal wrangling has prevented them from taking effect. After environmentalists threatened further legal action, the EPA agreed to designate areas that do not comply with the new standards no later than April 2004. That designation, however, is only the trigger for implementation and there is considerable debate over those proposed guidelines. smog

Smog affects many American cities and motor vehicles are far and away the leading cause. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
The bill as drafted would not allow the EPA to designate areas of nonattainment until the implementation issues have been sorted out and would allow states to proclaim an area as "unclassifiable," which would negate the requirement that it comply with the new standards.

"These are cynical measures to delay the EPA's rule as much as possible," said John Walke, director of Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Walke says there are other measures in the bill that threaten core provisions of the Clean Air Act. He pointed to language in the bill expands the "exceptional exemption" policy, which allows EPA to ignore non recurring events such as volcanic eruptions or forest fires.

The provision in the bill is intentionally vague, Walke says, so as to allow air quality data from hot weather days to be ignored by the EPA.

"These measures are totally out of place in legislation that is designed to deal with transportation," O'Donnell added.

Environmentalists are also concerned that the draft legislation seeks to codify into law early action compacts, which are agreements the EPA has forged with some areas to allow them to delay being designated as out of attainment with air quality rules. The compacts, which have been used in Texas, South Carolina and elsewhere, are in essence a three year waiver for areas that agree to voluntary emissions reduction plans.

O'Donnell says some environmentalists are challenging the legality of existing compacts, something they would be unable to do under rules within the draft bill. traffic

Politicians struggle with balancing short term needs to reduce traffic with long term air pollution reduction targets. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto.com)
But supporters of the concepts in the draft legislation, which reflects many ideas advanced by the Bush administration, believe states need more flexibility in order to pursue projects to remove traffic congestion.

This congestion contributes to air pollution, they contend, and must be relieved in order for long range air quality goals to be met.

And few could argue that traffic congestion is not a serious problem for many Americans, who spend on average four times as long sitting in traffic today compared to two decades ago.

It is also a problem for the U.S. economy - the Department of Transportation estimates the cost of traffic congestion is $72 billion annually in terms of hours of lost time and wasted fuel.

But critics of the draft bill say more roads will not ease this congestion and say measures that compromise air quality standards are unacceptable.

Cars and trucks are getting cleaner, but the EPA says that vehicles still account for 62 percent of U.S. carbon monoxide emissions, more than 50 percent of smog forming nitrogen oxide emissions and some 25 percent of fine particle soot. Vehicles are the leading source of carbon dioxide emissions, the most abundant heat trapping greenhouse gas most scientists are convinced is responsible for global warming.

"It is dangerous to give the road builders the hope of special exemption from clean air laws as the administration and some in Congress have done, especially when the real cost is the public health" said Michael Replogle, transportation director for Environmental Defense, a national advocacy group based in New York City.

There is also a real cost to the American economy - the Federal Highway Administration estimates that the adverse health impacts of motor vehicle emissions cost Americans $40 billion to $60 billion a year.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has yet to set a date for the initial mark up of the bill, but it is expected to hold hearings before the August recess.