Simplifying DOT regulations regarding conformity determination is the fifth of six changes Reason Foundation is recommending be made in the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization. Past posts detail the problems with the TIGER grants program, the need for MPOs to analyze whether their long-range transportation plans reduce congestion, the need to add taxpayer protections to the RRIF program and the rationale for eliminating surface transportation funding for non-federal modes.
The Clean Air Act of 1990 (CAA) as amended requires each region currently (or previously) in non-attainment with air quality standards to submit plans demonstrating that future compliance will be assured. For transportation, each region must show that its Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) “conforms” to the State Implementation Plan for air quality improvement. In the USDOT Rules (40 CFR 93), this means that the region’s TIP projects will, as a whole, not increase future emissions above the no-build level or above budgeted emissions.
As written the rule is onerous to MPOs. Further, it does very little to reduce emissions. We recommend eliminating the requirement for demonstration of conformity for regions presently in attainment of current air quality standards. For regions not presently in attainment, relax the review to once every 10 years, after new Census data become available.
The present rule requires even very small regions to conduct extensive forecasting of air pollution if they were ever in non-attainment of air quality standards. But virtually all of the future reduction in regional air pollution will be caused by cleaner vehicles, not by local transportation actions. Recent reviews of the air quality plans of 48 regions found that every region predicted a 30-50% reduction in vehicle emissions over 20 years even as travel increased. These regions predicted that the TIP would reduce emissions by only 0.25-0.5%-way too small to be significant. Further, the conformity rule requires reduction of emissions (tons of pollutant) but the CAA standards are for concentrations (parts per billion in air). Therefore, there is no direct connection between the rule’s emissions analysis and the CAA’s concentration requirements. Additionally, very few regions have been cited for non-conforming plans from among the literally hundreds submitted. A 2003 GAO analysis found that only five regions out of 200+ revised their plans based on conformity, and that frequent updating was administratively burdensome. No region has actually lost federal funds as a result of non-conformity. For major projects, environmental impact statement analysis already requires additional air quality analysis, so requiring regions to do it twice (to comply with the rule as well) is duplicative and burdensome. In this way, the rule is an administrative hurdle that duplicates later needed work, does not improve local air quality, and requires huge administrative effort to ensure certification for federal funds.
All MPOs-particularly the 400+ smaller ones-will have a significantly lower administrative burden. Assuming the current policy requires $20,000 per certification (probably low), administrative time and administration costs, this would save nearly $8M that could be better spent on effective transportation planning. There would be no decline in air quality as a result of this change.