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June 22, 2012

House Transportation Negotiators: Steamroll Public Input, Cut Funds for Biking and Walking, Then We'll Talk

Capitol Building

Next Saturday, June 30, the law funding our nation's roads, bridges and transit systems will expire unless Congress acts.

As time expires, House Republicans are holding the transportation bill hostage and demanding that the Senate rollback core transportation provisions and tack on unrelated polluter priorities, such as permitting the dirty Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. At stake are 2.9 million American jobs and much needed certainty for investing in our nation's transportation system.

One central demand from House negotiators is that the Senate "streamline" the environmental review process for transportation projects. For more than 40 years, the environmental review process has provided citizens with the ability to provide input on transportation projects that will significantly impact their communities. Though many claim that environmental review is holding up road construction around the country, finding funds to build projects and overcoming local opposition are more frequently the culprits. Indeed, less than 4% of all transportation projects, only the largest, most complex, undergo the highest level of environmental review.

In transportation bill negotiations, the House has launched an all-out assault on the National Environmental Policy Act, which was passed by a broad bipartisan majority in 1969 and signed by a Republican president. Provisions proposed by the House would steamroll public input on proposed highways, bridges and transit systems that would dramatically impact local communities.

As a letter (pdf) sent this week by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 36 other organizations stated, "These provisions would have the severe impact of shutting out nearly all stakeholders -- including low-income residents and communities of color, people with disabilities, older populations, landowners, business owners, and local governments -- from transportation project decisions affecting the health, economy, and environment of their local communities."

Some of the most egregious proposals from the House include:

  • Combining unachievable deadlines for reviews with a rubber stamp – In an extreme departure from current law, the House would require that all environmental reviews be completed within 270 days and automatically approve any project that does not achieve that arbitrary deadline --regardless of the project's impacts on communities, the environment, or the economy. Instead of trying to find the best project for a community, this provision would rubber stamp any project as long as the sponsors ran out the clock.

    In my own hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, this provision would allow the state to move forward with the misguided Eastern Bypass, which would drive sprawl, displace residents and cross an M-bend on wild and scenic Hurricane Creek with five bridges. Despite local opposition, this project would be allowed to move forward because reviews have taken longer than nine months.
  • Eliminating reviews altogether for projects under an arbitrary threshold – Under the House proposal, no environmental review would be conducted for projects with a price tag of less than $10 million or where federal funding is less than 15 percent of the total project. Shutting the public out of decisions where millions are at stake would leave communities to bear the impacts of new projects, so long as they came in under such an arbitrary threshold. 

    It doesn’t take much imagination to see a state proposing a $100 million dollar project, then splitting it into 10 "phases" of less than $10 million, purely to avoid reviews. Already, cases, such as the Bay Bridge replacement in California, have been documented where authorities avoid using federal funds in order to skirt requirements that construction materials be made in America. This provision would allow states to similarly run an end around on the environmental review process.

These are only two of many proposals from the House to gut the environmental review process. A previous blog of mine details several other provisions from one House proposal.

Another demand from House negotiators is that funds for safe biking and walking infrastructure be reduced or eliminated altogether. Currently, biking and walking infrastructure receives roughly 1.5 percent of federal transportation funds, while biking and walking make up 12 percent of all trips taken across the country.

As I wrote earlier this week, what we aren't paying for in safe infrastructure, we are paying for in lives. Just yesterday, Transportation 4 America released a report detailing how many pedestrian deaths have occurred in each congressional district over the past decade. At a time when more Americans are biking and walking then ever before, it is imperative that we invest in infrastructure that gives people options to safely bike and walk where they need to go.

As transportation bill negotiations continue through the weekend into next week, it is critical that you pick up the phone and call your Senators and Representatives. Tell them that, while we need a transportation bill, they must preserve public participation in our environmental review process and maintain funding for safe biking and walking infrastructure.

-- Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Green Transportation



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