House Transportation Bill Puts Pollution in the Fast Lane?

by Bill Chameides | February 17th, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | Comments Off on House Transportation Bill Puts Pollution in the Fast Lane?

The all-out attack on U.S. environmental programs takes to the road.

Back in the day the environment was a bipartisan issue with Republicans and Democrats together advancing an environmental agenda. That was the case as far back as Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency at the dawn of the 20th century. It was also the case during the 20th century’s last decade when George H. W. Bush was president [pdf]. In 2007 Republican Senator John McCain (AZ) co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and as recently as 2010, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) worked with Democratic colleagues on another climate bill.

But much has changed. Witness the contest for the Republican presidential nomination: the would-be nominees seem engaged in a one-upmanship struggle to flex their who-would-be-the-fastest-to-dismantle-the-Environmental-Protection Agency muscles, jockeying to be the anti-green-in-chief after settling into the White House.

In the face of Republican opposition, the Democrats appear to have cried uncle on the environment. Case in point: you won’t find much of an environmental agenda in the president’s 2012 State of the Union address though he did, for the record, mention climate change, once, but even then only to concede that passing a climate bill was not feasible because of Congressional gridlock.

All’s Fair in Politics?

They say that all’s fair in love and war, but whoever they are, they should have included politics. And in that vein, conservatives are apparently resolved to press their advantage and continue their all-out attack on things environmental, to eschew, if you will, that which hath a green hue. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence but all too often bankrolling such efforts are major corporations and wealthy corporate bigwigs who stand to benefit financially from any rollback in environmental regulations.

The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a membership association for conservative state lawmakers (et al) supported by the likes of ExxonMobil and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, has laid out a broad, comprehensive agenda for blocking new and rolling back existing environmental regulations under the purview of state legislatures. And as reported in the New York Times, language proposed in ALEC documents has been showing up word-for-word in bills working their way through state legislatures. (See also this recent opinion piece.)

Offense Against Public Education

Documents putatively leaked from the Heartland Institute describe an alleged national effort to undermine climate-science education in public schools. (For more on primary and secondary school education on climate science in the United States see this post.)

Local Vocals and Our Representatives

At the local and municipal levels the New York Times reports that Tea Party activists are flooding town halls and council meetings around the country in an effort to block policies designed to advance energy efficiency and reduce traffic congestion.

And then there’s Congress.

With the absence of any significant environmental bills on the docket, you’d think that all would be quiet on Capitol Hill’s environment front. Alas, that’s not the case. With control of the House, Republicans have adopted the old Congressional-piling-on strategy. Now routine is the practice of loading major bills (especially those requiring passage to keep the government operating) with unrelated provisions and amendments aimed at dismantling environmental protections. Case in point: the reauthorization of the transportation bill.

Federal-Aid Highway Program

Our nation’s highway system is key to our economy — kind of like an economic cardiovascular system that keeps goods flowing from producers and importers to consumers. Much of that system’s maintenance and management is accomplished through the Federal-Aid Highway Program through which Congress established the National System of Interstate Highways as well as the Highway Trust Fund, which fund transportation projects through, among other things, federal gasoline, diesel and tire taxes. Among its responsibilities, the program:

  • promulgates regulations to keep our highways safe (including for example, regulating the transport of hazardous material),
  • takes measures to reduce congestion, and
  • develops intermodal connectivity to keep goods moving efficiently across the nation.

First authorized by Congress in 1916 with the passage of Federal-Aid Road Act, the Federal-Aid Highway Program has since been periodically reauthorized through appropriate legislation, so-called “transportation bills,” most recently in 2005. That year’s Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) is the one that funded the infamous Bridge to Nowhere. If you think that was bad, you should get a load of what’s being proposed in the current House transportation bill.

Highway to Hello Pollution

The act that gave us the “Bridge to Nowhere” (whose funding ended up going somewhere in Alaska, just not to the bridge) expired in 2009, and reauthorization has proved an uphill battle. While multiple short-term extensions have kept it limping along, a new, long-term remedy is sorely needed — America’s roadways and bridges are literally crumbling beneath our radials.

In 2009 as the SAFETEA-LU was expiring, the American Society of Civil Engineers stated that “Congress must authorize the federal law that funds the nation’s surface transportation programs.” A 2011 report by the engineers’ group estimated that “deficiencies in America’s roads, bridges, and transit systems cost American households and businesses roughly $130 billion, including approximately $97 billion in vehicle operating costs, $32 billion in delays in travel time, $1
.2 billion in safety costs, and $590 million in environmental costs.”

Now two bills are wending their way through Congress — the Senate’s White House-backed, $109-billion Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century bill (S. 1813) [pdf] and the House’s $260-billion American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act (H.R. 7) [pdf]. At this juncture, both bills are in a holding pattern (see here and here).

In the lower chamber, House Republicans, whose bill has little chance of passing the Senate (and Obama has threatened a veto), have apparently decided that gutting environmental policies and expanding domestic energy projects are more important than supporting America’s deteriorating transportation system, and have loaded down the bill with anti-environment provisions that in many cases have little to do with transportation.

  • Title XIV of the bill basically green lights Keystone XL, allowing for Nebraska to offer up an alternative route while allowing planning/construction elsewhere to go ahead.
  • Juicy provisions in the bill’s natural resources section would expand oil shale drilling (championed by Rep. Dough Lamborn of Colorado Springs) and open up new areas for offshore drilling.
  • “Environmental Streamlining” provisions would set new timetables on the environmental review process for transportation projects and give states broader authority to exempt projects from environmental review if they are deemed to not have significant environmental impact. (Hey, at least this title is relevant to transportation.)
  • A provision written into the bill by the Ways and Means Committee would make public transportation’s future a little less certain. A new funding scheme would allocate $40 billion to mass transit, in a one-shot deal, rather than continue the revenues that for years have steadily come from the Highway Tax Fund, 20 percent of whose revenues have gone to transit. (The Highway Tax Fund’s coffers have been in decline on and off throughout the years, most recently beginning in 2008 with the economic downturn.)

Turns out, lots of folks, regardless of party, are not exactly enamored with the House bill. For example, Coloradans are up in arms over the proposed oil shale provision, including the mayor of Rifle, Colorado, who complained that the bill is “not a good deal for us. We’re not against oil shale or gas development here, we just want it done in a way that doesn’t drive us into the ground.” Republican Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood went further, calling it the “worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service.”

Depressed? Frustrated? There is a bright side. Given the gridlock in Washington, reauthorization of the transportation bill might go the way of the climate bill — straight to the fast lane on a highway to nowhere.  Preferable to a bridge to nowhere, don’t you think?

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