Congress Should Simplify Conformity Regulations for Regional Transportation Plans

Current rules create huge administrative burden without improving environment


Simplify DOT Regulations Regarding Conformity Determination

Issue. 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 DOT 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.

Action Requested. Revise the rule to: 1. Eliminate the requirement for demonstration of conformity for regions presently in attainment of current air quality standards; 2. For regions not presently in attainment, relax the review to once every 10 years, after new Census data become available.

Justification. 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, and 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 has become 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.

Benefits and Costs of the Change. Regions-particularly the 400+ smaller ones-will have significant relief of administrative burden. Assuming $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 loss of air quality as a result of this change.

Likely Support: Federal Highway Administration, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, American Metropolitan Planning Association and taxpayer organizations.

Likely Opposition: The Environmental Protection Administration and some other environmental organizations.

David T. Hartgen

David T. Hartgen is Emeritus Professor of Transportation Studies at UNC Charlotte. Professor Hartgen is widely known in transportation circles. He established UNC Charlotte's Center for Interdisciplinary Transportation Studies in 1989 and now teaches and conducts research in transportation policy and planning. He is the author of about 330 studies on a wide variety of topics in transportation policy and planning, is the U.S. editor of the international academic journal Transportation, and is active in professional organizations. He is a frequent media interviewee in local and national outlets. Before coming to Charlotte he directed the statistics, traffic forecasting and analysis functions of the New York State Department of Transportation and served as a Policy Analyst at the Federal Highway Administration. He holds engineering degrees from Duke University and Northwestern University. He has taught at SUNY Albany, Union College and Syracuse University and lectures widely. His studies of the comparative performance of transportation systems have received nation-wide attention. He has also recently completed a major component of Reason's Mobility Study that estimates the cost of significantly reducing road congestion nation-wide, a comprehensive study of congestion in North Carolina, and a comparative study of the 50 state highway systems . His current research includes an assessment of the economic impact of highways in South Carolina, a review of transportation performance for the provinces of Canada, a national study of business impacts of congestion, and an assessment of congestion in mid-sized cities.