Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Is the highway department undermining congressional intent on clean-air funds?

The emission control industry is warning that interim guidance by the Federal Highway Administration may “undermine” appropriate use of billions of dollars in federal highway spending on projects designed to mitigate congestion and air pollution.

That’s because the highway agency did not properly tally up the value of money spent on cleaning up existing diesel engines.

The backdrop is this: on Nov. 9, the highway agency put out “interim” guidance on how states should spend federal transportation funds provided through the so-called Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program. http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/cmaq06gm.htm

This program gives federal aid to various transportation and infrastructure projects specifically aimed at reducing congestion or improving air quality. In the past, it has been used for such things as HOV lanes and building bike paths.

But in 2005, Congress directed states to give priority to diesel retrofits, particularly for equipment used in road construction, when deciding how to spend CMAQ money. (The provisions were included in that year’s transportation legislation, known as the “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Use.”)

It was left to the highway agency to issue guidelines spelling out congressional intent.

According to the Emission Control Technology Association, the interim guidance “suffers from several notable shortcomings which prevent an `apples-to-apples’ comparison among alternative strategies, undermining the guidance’s ability to promote informed decision making and facilitate the efficient use of public monies.”

Their basic argument is that the guidelines don’t compare the value of reducing emissions of particle soot – the most lethal of widespread pollutants – to pollutants that cause less public health damage. As a result, highway agencies may keep on spending money on projects that don’t achieve the same public health improvements.

Frankly, I think they have a point here. I wonder if the highway guidelines were just typical bureaucratic bungling, or was it a real attempt to undermine the intent of Congress that more money should go to cleaning up dirty diesel engines?

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