Fixing the House bill: reducing air pollution by providing more travel optionsMarch 13, 2012
By Stephen Lee Davis
One of many issues that need to be fixed in the House’s transportation bill is a plan to allow transportation money in a pollution-control fund to be used on new roadways for solo drivers.
After almost 40 years of building our world-leading interstate system, many people started to realize that this excess of people driving alone at rush hour created a whole lot of air pollution and congestion. Some busy cities were seeing their air fill up with nasty pollution and smog from tailpipe emissions, and their roads were choked with traffic several hours a day.
After the environmental disasters of the 60′s and 70′s helped catalyze the movement to clean up our air and water, Congress declared clean air a national priority in the 1970s and Republican President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. On the transportation side, in the transportation bill written in 1991, Congress created a new program called the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program (CMAQ), dedicated solely to helping communities deal with the negative side effects of over-reliance on major roads for rush-hour travel.
A provision in the House’s transportation bill (H.R. 7) upends that intention by opening that fund to construction of regular highway lanes.
Essentially, the bill’s authors in 1991 recognized that efforts to build our way out of congestion had reached a point of diminishing returns, where each new lane simply invited more cars, leading to more emissions and, ultimately, still more congestion. They decided that it made sense to take a very small slice of transportation dollars to help address and mitigate those problems.
The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program gives states a small pot of funding to help provide other options, promote carpooling, or address other impacts of too many people driving alone at peak hour. Washington, D.C. used some CMAQ funds to kick-start their world class bike sharing program known as Capital Bikeshare, which helps people make short trips throughout the city and part of the region without having to get in a car, a bus or a train. Other cities have used it to fund new transit service in or adjacent to a congested corridor, add new high-occupancy vehicle lanes to provide an option that rewards carpooling on congested roads, or improve the flow of traffic with more intelligent transportation systems.
Some states even give the CMAQ funding directly to their metro areas, because the local leaders in a metro area usually know best how to spend the funds and address their most pressing needs.
Our cities are as congested as they’ve ever been, and though our air is significantly cleaner than it was in the 1970′s thanks in part to cleaner vehicles, it doesn’t make any sense in 2012 for the House bill to “decide” that air pollution and congestion are no longer negative side effects of building new roads, reversing 20 years of stated transportation policy.
Two proposed amendments to HR7 would fix the problems with CMAQ. Amendments 191 and 97, proposed by Reps. Blumenauer and Ellison respectively, would restore the current function of CMAQ to helping reduce exhaust and emissions. And high-occupancy vehicle lanes would once again be the only new eligible road capacity.
With the House in recess and the Senate poised to pass a bipartisan transportation bill this week, we’ll be taking a longer look at a few other issues with the House transportation bill in the coming days — and how some of those issues can be fixed. Though they may have addressed one issue by restoring dedicated transit funding (reportedly, though not publicly confirmed), there are still other issues that need work to improve the bill and get a bipartisan majority of House members to support it.