Transportation: Strengthening Local Communities

Mention transportation policy and people's eyes glaze over. It is a world filled with acronyms and wonk-words like "mitigation" and "intermodal." But talk about a new construction project that will add another 30 minutes to the daily commute and people start to perk up, usually as their blood begins to boil. In fact, there may not be a local issue that arouses as much passion from a seemingly apathetic public as transportation. Media in every major city compete ferociously for the most up-to-date traffic reports. And make no mistake, how transportation dollars are spent has a profound effect on a region's quality of life. From air quality to the preservation of natural areas, property taxes, access to jobs, suburban sprawl, and the depletion of farmland, transportation gets to the heart of many high profile issues. While local public officials, particularly big-city Mayors, understand the importance of transportation to their constituents, they are often forced to rely on federal dollars to fund projects. For this reason, the stakes are enormously high for metropolitan areas around the country as Congress considers the six-year reauthorization of the nation's transportation law -- known as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). The final form of ISTEA will go a long way toward addressing whether Metropolitan regions will continue transportation strategies of perpetual road-building, or begin to fund projects which provide a more balanced approach. With an expected vote on ISTEA in October, the fight in Congress is fairly straightforward. Roadbuilders and developers want to earmark more money exclusively toward building roads, reduce projects that address air quality, and eliminate the ability of citizens in local communities to have a say in how federal money is spent. Environmentalists want increased citizen input into which projects get funded, and additional money for projects such as mass transit, bike lanes and walkways. When ISTEA was first passed in 1991, it was considered revolutionary as transportation policy goes. For the first time, it was mandated that citizens on the local level have input, and it included components which promoted transportation projects that benefit the environment, including projects for walking, biking, and mass transit. And over the last six years, Metropolitan regions around the country have benefitted greatly from this little-known transportation law. "ISTEA has moved many decisions down to the local level," says Randy Neufeld, Executive Director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (CBF) whose organization has benefitted greatly from ISTEA. "Better transportation decisions come from people who are closer to the transportation needs." CBF has worked with the city of Chicago to use ISTEA money to establish seven miles of on-street bike lanes in the city of Chicago - not exactly known as a haven for bikers. Chicago has installed 3,641 bike racks throughout the city. And another ISTEA project, the Conrail Bikeway, is Chicago's first rails-to-trails project -- running through Dan Ryan Woods and Whistler Woods. In a rare example of a federal bill that works and actually impacts peoples' lives, ISTEA has funded projects around the country that have helped strengthen local communities. * In Danville, Virginia they are renovating a train station complex which will bring in a passenger station for Amtrak, a Freight Depot for a new Community Market, and develop a trail system to link scenic and historic sites along the Dan River. * Seattle's 17-mile Burke-Gilman Trail connects numerous neighborhoods with the University of Washington and Seattle's downtown. * A 45-mile rail trail linking St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs, Florida connects people of all ages and economic levels in eight communities, passing several major employment areas, five schools, and numerous parks and national areas. * In the San Francisco region, they have set up a Freeway Service Patrol, which reduced long traffic delays caused by disabled vehicles. These delays account for 50 percent of the traffic congestion in the metropolitan region. In one 10-mile section it was estimated that FSP reduced time spent in traffic jams by 80 percent. * In Boise, Idaho, by replacing 28 of its outdated diesel buses with a fleet of small and medium-size buses powered by compressed natural gas (CNG), the city is able to meet the Clean Air Act's stricter emission standards. "The strength of ISTEA is that it has created the climate for citizens to have direct input into the transportation planning for the region," says Jacky Grimshaw, co-director of the Chicagoland Transportation and Air Quality Commission (CTAQC), composed of over 130 local groups, including organizations representing the elderly, public health, unions, and low income communities. Similar coalitions have formed in Metropolitan regions around the country in response to the growing devastating impact of suburban sprawl, and steadily increasing traffic in Metropolitan regions around the country. There is a sense that the "pave it first" strategy just isn't working. "For many of these groups, federal transportation policy had largely been disruptive and negative, and their focus had been on stopping bad projects rather than on using transportation funding to improve communities and the environment," says Hank Dittmar, Executive Director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), which is leading the national lobbying effort. There is evidence that the idea of offering transportation options to people is becoming more and more of a mainstream view. Walking and biking paths ranked third among 39 features identified by homebuyers as crucial factors in their home-purchasing decisions, according to a 1994 American Lives study. And the case for better access to mass transit is purely economic. The costs of congestion in America would be $15 billion per year higher without transit, and people would have to spend $20 billion more per year in car expenses, according to a recent STPP study. The open question is whether Congress will allow for these types of projects to be funded under ISTEA. The roadbuilding industry and developers are desperately trying to gut components requiring citizen participation and devote a larger chunk of money toward road-building. Of even larger concern is that Congress will severely weaken the part of ISTEA that deals with air quality called the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program. This component of ISTEA is particularly important given the Environmental Protection Agency's recent approval of tougher Clean Air rules. When projects are cut from the CMAQ program, such as bicycle, pedestrian walkways, and mass transit, it will be much more difficult for metropolitan regions to meet the tougher Clean Air standards. An early version of ISTEA would allow some CMAQ money to go toward projects for road and highway expansion - in other words projects that harm air quality. Road and highway expansion projects are currently ineligible for CMAQ funding. The House bill does "severely threaten the integrity of one of ISTEA's more successful environmental programs designed to reduce air pollution," according to STPP's Dittmar. While it does not carry the cache of "welfare reform" or a "balanced budget" among the national media, grappling with the simple question of how we get from place to place is becoming the "hot button" issue in cities and communities around the country. Ben Lilliston is the Editorial Director for the Chicago-based Sustain: The Environmental Information Group.

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