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Clean air amendments have major transportation focus.

Environmentalists began a major transportation initiative over two years ago by framing several key issues in the context of the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA). While factories and other socalled stationary sources contribute to air pollution and global warming, the principal source of pollution for many communities is the automobile. Over the years, the federal government has tried to control emissions from mobile sources through ever tighter emissions standards and, most recently, through the promotion of cleaner burning gasoline and alternative fuels.

Although these are critical restrictions, as vehicle trips increase at an annual rate of 3 to 4 times the rate of population growth, it is only a matter of time before these improvements in automobile design are overwhelmed by more people driving longer distance more often. Indeed, even the aggressive requirements of the pending Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) legislation will only dampen the expected growth in motor fuel consumption. It will not reduce or even stabilize the projected increases in consumption attributed to vehicle use.

In fact, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works recognized during its deliberation on the Clean Air Act Amendments that without additional measures to address the "use" of the automobile, the other emission reduction requirements in the Clean Air Act would be overwhelmed in 10 to 15 years.

Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990

Important changes in the CAAA for the first time require that transportation plans and investments "conform" to a state's clean air plan. New highways and roads can be built, but only if the added pollution they cause is more than offset by other measures, so that continuing improvements are made in air quality.

Over the years, highways and other transportation investments were made whether or not they worsened air quality. To add teeth to the new requirements, the CAAA also imposes severe sanctions on metropolitan areas who implement or attempt to implement transportation programs or plans that fail to meet air quality goals.

Barriers to Clean Air Act Compliance

in Federal Transportation Law

Essentially, the existing, federal transportation program imposed four major barriers to Clean Air Act compliance. First, the program lacked the necessary flexibility to enable metropolitan communities to fashion the most cost-effective and sensible transportation program for their community. Under provisions of federal law, states received money ear-marked for over 40 separate highway programs.

These programs were established to finance the construction and maintenance of specific highway "systems." The funds allocated to a state for a specific road "system" could only be used for that network of roads, even if it made more sense to dedicate those funds to other roads or other transportation modes.

Second, the existing federal framework provided very little dedicated funding to metropolitan communities. Although environmentalists strongly advocated the imposition of harsh sanctions to states--as well as metropolitan areas--for failing to comply with the CAAA, Congress elected to restrict mandatory sanctions to the metropolitan communities in nonattainment. This imbalance of sanctions was compounded by federal transportation funding mechanisms which gave metropolitan areas almost no control over transportation investment decisions in their communities.

Third, although the CAAA spells out a detailed planning process at both the state and local level to control air pollution in nonattainment areas, the federal transportation program requires no state planning and virtually no local planning.

In addition, the CAAA directs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to carefully police the planning decisions of the states and local governments, but the federal transportation program has precluded the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) from undertaking any comprehensive review of the impact of state and local transportation plans on air quality, energy conservation, or even transportation goals.

Finally, there were several important incentives in federal transportation law that were tilted heavily toward worsening rather than improving air quality and energy conservation. First, federal transportation law heavily rewarded states with increasing vehicle use and penalized those with stable or declining use. This was due in large measure to the allocation formulas in current law which were used to determine how federal transportation funding would be divided among the states. Many of these formulae were tied in some fashion to a state's vehicle miles of travel (VTM), a well-established measure of vehicle use. The higher a state's VMT, the more money it would receive.

From the perspective of many transportation officials, VMT is considered a useful surrogate for the intensity of road use and maintenance needs. Although these officials do not support increases in VMT per se. They do strongly support using increases in VMT as a jurisdiction for increased funding.

By contrast, compliance with the mandates of the CAAA should lead to reduced VMT growth, improved air quality, lower energy consumption, and less wear and tear on existing transportation infrastructure. For obvious reasons, the environmental community strongly opposed current funding formulas that would affirmatively penalize states who promptly complied with CAAA requirements, while rewarding states who drag their feet.

A second major disincentive in existing law was a heavy bias toward one transportation mode: highways. Transit, bicycles, car pools, van pools, and even high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes received less federal funding that highway construction and expansion. Even for those non-highway projects the federal government elected to fund, it would pay for less than 50 percent of the project's cost, but would cover up to 95 percent of a highway project's cost. Whatever the merit of transit projects from a cost-effectiveness or air quality standpoint, the environmental community strongly supported policies that placed all modes on a level playing field.

A third disincentive was the failure to accurately price the costs of various transportation services. A number of groups have been examining a variety of pricing schemes to encourage the most efficient use of existing highway systems. However, federal law specifically prohibited the use of tolls or other pricing mechanisms on any existing free Interstate highway segment. This meant that even if metropolitan officials elected to impose a form of congestion pricing, they would have been prevented from doing so.

Key Changes in the ISTEA

After a bitter and difficult Conference between the House and Senate, the final bill, although not perfect, represents a major victory for the environment. First, an unprecedented amount of funding is eligible for virtually any transportation mode: highway, transit, commuter rail, car and van-pools, etc. Of the $151 billion authorized under the ISTEA, $110 billion can be spent flexibly. Of the remaining $41 billion, $17 billion must be spent to maintain, but not expand, the existing Interstate highway system, and another $16 billion must be spent to maintain the nation's inventory of bridges, leaving only $8 billion earmarked exclusively for highway expansion.

Second, the amount of funding earmarked for metropolitan areas was more than tripled from current levels. For example, over the next six years, the Los Angeles area will receive direct funding in excess of $790 million and New York will receive over $515 million. These funds are in addition to any funds provided by the state and will give nonattainment areas a real opportunity to meet the mandates of the CAAA. In addition, the bill earmarks $6 billion over the next 6 years specifically for projects designed to improve air quality in nonattainment areas.

Third, the bill requires states and local governments to undertake aggressive transportation planning and doubles the funding available for planning purposes. Plans must consider the impact transporting decisions will have on air quality, energy use, and other factors. State will be forced to follow the priority of projects identified by the metropolitan area to avoid the construction of projects that will worsen air quality. Finally, the FHWA must undertake a substantive and detailed review of state and local plans to ensure compliance with the new transportation law and with other federal laws, including the CAAA.

Finally, the bill dramatically reconfigures the incentives in current law. First, funds are allocated among the states based on a fixed percentage of available funds. A state will no longer be penalized for increasing the efficiency of its transportation system or for complying with the CAAA. Regrettably, a provision crafted by environmentalists and incorporated into the Senate bill that would have actually rewarded states for prompt CAAA compliance was not adopted by the Conference Committee.

The bill also addressed the strong bias in current law favoring new highway construction over their transportation alternative. Under the new law, other transportation modes will compete on an equal footing with new highway projects. Each mode will receive the same share of federal funding, each will go through the same planning process, and each must meet the requirements of the CAAA.

Although the prohibition of tolls on existing free Interstate highways will remain in place, the new law will lift the prohibition for up to 3 congestion pricing pilot projects.

The Road Ahead

The advance made in both the CAAA and the ISTEA to control vehicle use are dramatic. But, it is often a large leap to translate a series of new legal mandates into a real change. The challenges that lie ahead make our accomplishments in the CAAA and the ISTEA look small by comparison. However, the environmental community must look ahead to the third prong of its three part strategy to control vehicle use--local implementation.

The tasks ahead are substantial, but it is also clear that these tasks would have been virtually impossible without the major legislative victories in both the CAAA and the ISTEA.

Bill Roberts is legislative director for the Environmental Defense Fund.
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Title Annotation:Special Report: Learning to Cope with New Transportation Law
Author:Roberts, Bill
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:May 4, 1992
Words:1587
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