Why are Environmental Groups so Upset with new Transportation Bill?

As details of the recently passed transportation bill leaked out, some Environmental activists released press releases equating the bill to Armageddon.

According to Streetsblog:

In H.R.7 — the transpo bill so backwards even the House couldn’t pass it — the roads-only crowd threw transit riders under the bus, as it were, eliminating dedicated funding for transit, which was left to fend for itself off scraps from the general fund.

The best thing one can say about the bill issued by the conference committee last night is that it doesn’t include that draconian measure. But it sure doesn’t do anything to move transit forward in this country.

The Sierra Club concurred:

“House Republicans extracted concessions that will keep our transportation system stuck in reverse. By rolling back critical environmental review laws, they’ll curtail the public’s ability to have a say on highway and bridge projects

in their communities. By undermining efforts to make biking and walking safer and keep our roads and bridges in good repair, they’ve done their best to ensure we remain dependent on oil and a crumbling infrastructure…One of the few good things you can say about this bill is that it could have been worse.”

These press releases sound as if House Republicans created some kind of monster. The only problem is none of the claims are true. Environmental interests are upset for three major reasons: Transportation Enhancements, Complete Streets and Environmental Streamlining.

The Transportation Enhancements program that environmentalists love survives in the new Transportation Alternatives program. Funds may still be used to design on and off road bicycle and walking trails. Most of these trails are related to recreation not transportation. The bill continues to fund the conversion of abandoned railroad corridors to trails and the rehabilitation of historic transportation facilities. All forms of pollution abatement, stormwater management and aquatic habitat restoration are also eligible for federal funds. States are no longer mandated to devote two percent of their funds to solely trails and bicycle paths. Now they can use the money for boulevards as well! But one useless program has finally been killed. Local municipalities are no longer allowed to use federal funding for transportation museums. No more federally supported transportation museums? The world is going to end!

Although the Complete Streets provision was eliminated, the Highway Safety Improvement Program includes Complete Streets language in its wording. In the end the specific program has been eliminated, while the program’s goals live on in a different form.

The compromise bill also contained some, but not all, of the streamlining provisions that House Republicans wanted. The final bill does not contain hard deadlines on environmental review as Republicans wanted. However, it does reduce budgets of agencies that deliberately delay review. (In other words federal agencies can no longer use stalling tactics to delay projects that are environmentally safe but disliked by environmental advocates.)

None of these program changes are major. The federal transportation bill still devotes a great deal of funding to local priorities such as local transit systems and non-motorized transit instead of national needs. Why are some groups so upset when the only program denied funding is transportation museums?

The major goal of some environmental groups is to delay any highway project regardless of environmental facts or actual needs. While many environmental groups’ programs are still funded, this bill finally stops the trend of funding less for significant infrastructure and more for environmental goals. That funding for environmental goals failed to increase shows that the environment at all costs movement is losing its influence. To show how out of touch these groups are, all 187 House Democrats, regardless of their support for environmental causes, voted “YES” on the HR4348 conference report. While some of them undoubtedly disliked certain portions of the bill, none succumbed to voting “NO” due to political pressure from certain environmental groups. All 74 Democrats present in the Senate also voted “YES”.

Meanwhile, 52 house republicans and 19 senate republicans voted “NO” on the conference report. Many of these Republicans thought the bill had not gone far enough at eliminating waste. Republicans were also upset with the budget gimmickry where bill authors used $19 billion of projected general fund monies from pension relief over ten years to fund a two-year bill. This borrowing of imaginary money in the future is very poor fiscal policy. Congressional staffers need to start researching reform and different revenue sources soon. A major fiscal challenge awaits the next transportation bill.

The environmental groups have become the boy who cried “Wolf”. In that story as in real life, sane people stop listening. Barbara Boxer, the Conference Committee chairman, ignored full-page newspaper advertisements and press releases from environmental groups warning of dire consequences of passing the conference report. The report’s unanimous passage by Democrats and signature by a Democratic President is a compelling statement of the loss of power by these groups. While the bill has significant problems, the influence of transportation groups rather than environmental groups is a step in the right direction.