Bush Rolls Out Transportation Spending Plan

By J.R. Pegg

May 15, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration unveiled a $247 billion, six year transportation spending plan Wednesday that aims to improve safety programs, reduce traffic congestion and minimize project delays by reforming environmental reviews.

The spending plan - dubbed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003 (SAFETEA) - lays out the administration's transportation spending priorities and reflects an overall increase of 13 percent over the existing program, which is set to expire in October.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said the plan is the largest investment in highways and public transit in American history.

It reflects the premise that "saving lives" is the number one priority, Mineta said, and furthers "the administration's commitment to dramatically reducing the number of highway injuries and fatalities."

Some 43,000 Americans are killed annually on the nation's highways and $230 billion is spent each year on highway fatalities and injuries.

The proposal doubles funding for safety programs, provides $190 million for federal highway spending and $46 billion for mass transit, earmarks funds to give trucks better access to rail yards and ports, and affords states greater flexibility in how they spend federal transportation funds.

But critics say the $247 billion plan falls far short of the investments needed to address the nation's transportation challenges and many question the priorities the administration has laid out in its proposal.

For example, the Department of Transportation (DOT) estimates that $50 billion in highway investments is needed to improve roadway conditions and reduce traffic congestion, but SAFETEA averages some $32 billion a year over the six year life of the plan. traffic

Growing traffic is an increasing problem in many cities around the United States. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto.com)
The issue of transportation funding is a contentious one, but there appears to be growing consensus that much more investment is needed. Legislation on Capitol Hill calls between $42 million and $50 million a year, a target far higher than what the administration has proposed.

The administration could face opposition for not hiking the existing 18.4 cents per gallon gasoline tax, something some in Congress have suggested is needed to fund highway and mass transit projects.

Funds for mass transit increase only two percent to $46 billion and critics say the administration is trying to shift the burden of mass transit projects on to the states, just as state governments face their worse fiscal crisis in history. The plan reduces the federal share of transit financing for new rail projects from 80 percent to 50 percent, but leaves the 80/20 ratio in effect for highway projects.

Under the proposal, guaranteed highway funding would grow 24 percent over six years, but guaranteed mass transit funding drops eight percent over the same period.

Funding for the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program remains flat under SAFETEA, a decision that environmentalists say will shortchange a program on the brink of unprecedented expansion.

CMAQ was designed to fund transportation projects that reduce emissions in non-attainment and maintenance areas, as well as to fund projects that slow the growth of congestion, reduce emissions, and maintain economically viable and mobile communities.

New air quality standards set to go into effect this year and this will result in more areas being designated as not in attainment with air quality rules.

"SAFETEA calls for billions of dollars to be showered on America's transportation needs, but it fails to include a strong commitment to protecting public health," said Dr. John Balbus, a physician who heads the environmental health program at Environmental Defense.

"It weakens accountability for meeting clean air goals that protect public health from the leading source or toxic pollution in most communities - the exhaust from gas and diesel engines," Balbus said.

Environmentalists say the proposal would significantly weaken protections for historical sites, recreation areas, and wildlife and waterfowl refuges and diminish the power of resource managers to evaluate effects of transportation projects on natural, cultural and historic resources, and transfer that power to the DOT.

In addition, they believe the plan undermines the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the federal government to assess the environmental impact of its actions and to inform the public of alternatives. The proposal would limit appeals of environmental reviews of transportation projects to 180 days after the decision has been made, a move environmentalists say compromises environmental protection and unfairly limits public participation.

The plan further weakens the oversight of NEPA, environmentalists say, because it allows the DOT to delegate much of its compliance obligations to state and local governments. Under the proposal, state or local governments could assume DOT's role of preparing environmental reviews and of determining the level of environmental review needed.

"Abdicating the federal government's responsibilities under NEPA and passing responsibilities onto state and local governments clearly violates the spirit of the law," said Bill Snape, Defenders of Wildlife's chief counsel. "Localities should be partners but should not be allowed to weaken the national interest in environmentally sound transportation projects, particularly given the massive amount of federal funds on the table."

Bush administration officials rejected criticism from environmentalists, saying that the plan aims to move projects forward more quickly without compromising environmental review.

"SAFETEA, when enacted by the Congress, will help ensure transportation projects are completed on budget and on time, while protecting the environment," Mineta said. Mineta

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has made safety the central focus of the department's transportation spending plan. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Transportation)
Even the centerpiece of the plan - safety - drew fire from critics.

The plan doubles spending on safety programs from some $4 billion to $8.6 billion, including $415 million for states that enact mandatory seat belt laws. Eighteen states, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. currently have the such laws, which allow police officers to pull over motorists just for not wearing seat belts.

But the new proposal is "deceptive," according to Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

"The U.S. DOT proposal will not guarantee that all states pass standard enforcement seat belt laws," said Stone. "The proposal creates a new incentive grant program to increase belt use and a weak disincentive for states that do not. However, it has loopholes and escape hatches that will do more for creative accounting than for safety."

Stone says the administration's weak safety provisions come only weeks after the DOT released its 2002 motor vehicle fatality figures, which were at their highest level since 1990.

"This is a public health epidemic and the administration has given us surgical masks with gaping holes," Stone said. "The DOT legislative proposal repackages existing, old programs and adds 'safety' to the name."

The increased flexibility to the states that the administration touts is questioned by a General Accounting Office report released Wednesday that found the federal government does not consistently monitor how states use highway safety funds.

Congress will consider the plan, but could choose to enact its own proposal or reauthorize the existing transportation program - the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century - before it expires in October.