TESTIMONY OF ROBERT PERCIASEPE
OFFICE OF AIR AND RADIATION
U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
UNITED STATES SENATE
July 14, 1999
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, for the invitation to appear here today to discuss transportation conformity. As you know, conformity in its current form was required by Congress in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Conformity requires areas that have poor air quality now or had it in the past to examine the long-term air quality impacts of their transportation system and ensure that it is compatible with clean air goals. These areas must assess the impacts of growth and decide how to manage it. Anticipating the future impact of today's decisions results in better public policy. Just as knowing the nutritional content of foods allows each person to choose a diet that balances satisfaction and health, knowing the air quality impacts of transportation decisions allows each area to choose transportation projects that balance growth with the health of the community.
Although our air quality has been improving, many cities in the United States still suffer unhealthy levels of ozone, more commonly known as smog. Nearly 100 million people live in the 38 U.S. areas that are still not attaining the one-hour ozone standard. And despite the significant advances in producing cleaner cars and cleaner fuels, cars and trucks still account for almost half of the overall emissions in urban areas because we're driving more miles every year. We've gone from just over one trillion vehicle miles per year in 1970 to over two trillion miles per year today. These trends are continuing - the number of vehicle miles traveled has been steadily increasing about two percent every year, and is as high as five percent in the fast-growing cities in the south and west.
The growth in vehicle traffic not only worsens air quality, but also causes severe congestion. This leads to increased travel time for motorists and slower distribution of goods throughout our metropolitan regions. Many people think that traffic congestion can be relieved by adding more road capacity: either building more roads or widening the existing ones. As we have discovered, this is not always the case. In areas with poor air quality, the question of how to improve traffic flow in a way that will not exacerbate air pollution must be faced head-on.
Conformity requires state and local governments and the public to consider the air quality impacts of the planned transportation system as a whole and over the long term - before transportation plans and projects are implemented. Billions of dollars every year are spent on developing and maintaining our transportation systems. Conformity helps ensure that these dollars are not spent in a way that makes air quality worse. Conformity requires areas to consider the impacts of their decisions up front.
Though conformity was included in the 1977 Clean Air Act, it wasn't clearly defined until the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. The amendments strengthened and clarified the conformity requirement and delegated to the Administrator of EPA the responsibility for writing a regulation to establish the criteria and procedures for conformity. The Department of Transportation (DOT) must concur with all conformity rules. We published the first rule in November of 1993. We streamlined and clarified rule in August 1997, based on extensive discussions with state and local air pollution officials, transportation planners, and other stakeholders, as well as the experience of both DOT and EPA employees in the field. To date, we believe conformity has been successful in preventing transportation planning decisions from contributing to new violations.
Conformity works by reinforcing a state's air quality plan and keeping areas on track in meeting their air quality goals. A state's air quality plan establishes emissions ceilings or budgets for the various types of sources that make air pollution. Conformity makes state and local agencies accountable for keeping an area's total motor vehicle emissions within the budgets established by the air quality plan. Communities have choices about how to address their transportation and air quality needs. An area can choose to build transportation projects that increase emissions, as long as the net effect of the total system is consistent with the state air plan. Most areas have been able to continue adding to their transportation network and still stay within their clean air budgets.
In several areas, conformity has been at the core of discussions surrounding growth, congestion, air quality, and quality of life. In Atlanta, Georgia, one of the fastest growing areas in the country, the impacts of growth have been front and center for everyone from residents to employers to the Governor's office. Since 1996, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been featuring editorials and front page articles about conformity, traffic, air quality, and growth. Recent articles in Atlanta have focused on the concerns of business and political leaders, worried that Atlanta may no longer be competitive with other American cities in promoting economic opportunities because of its traffic congestion and air quality problems.
According to a 1999 Georgia State University report, if Atlanta develops the reputation as a "dirty city," the region could lose thousands of jobs and suffer economic losses in the billions of dollars. Atlanta's inability to conform its transportation system to its air quality goals, and the ensuing public debate over growth in Atlanta, has produced a shift in the way both government and corporations do business.
Partly due to issues highlighted by the conformity process, Georgia has developed new institutional processes for solving transportation and air quality problems. Earlier this year Georgia Governor Roy Barnes proposed and the legislature created a regional transportation super-agency for urban areas of the state. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority is a 15-member board that has authority to oversee transportation and air quality planning, and to develop commuter rail, light rail, and other mass transit options.
Also, Atlanta-based telecommunications firm Bell South announced early this year that it is consolidating 13,000 employees from suburban offices to three new business centers located in the city along a transit line -- "a major corporate effort to directly address Atlanta's traffic congestion and pollution," according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Like Atlanta, Denver has also grappled with the issues of growth and air quality. In 1994, Denver could not demonstrate how its transportation plan would meet air quality goals, so the Colorado legislature decided to revise the goals and increase the level of permissible particulate matter. This action resulted in widespread public debate about the health effects of increased particulate matter and how Denver should grow. Subsequently, the city adopted measures such as reduced street sanding and sweeping to decrease particulate matter in the short term. In the longer term, the public debate about growth led to the decision to establish a growth boundary, focusing growth in the core area.
Conformity has been important in large, fast growing areas, but also in smaller areas as well. Conformity is a key reason that the Cape Cod Commission in Massachusetts added air quality to its Regional Policy Plan as an issue to be considered in guiding regional growth.
Conformity links transportation planning with air quality planning. Before conformity was required, these two planning processes were done separately, yet both transportation and air quality planners had to make assumptions about future growth and future transportation decisions. With conformity, air quality and transportation planning are coordinated through consultation. Each process informs the other, and both have improved as a result of the consultation that the conformity rule requires. Because of conformity's consultation requirement, the quality of information that planners have to work with has improved, the relationship between air quality and transportation planners have improved, and modeling has improved. We know from Harvard's recent conformity study that consultation has led to better working relationships among transportation and air quality planners, as well as better understanding and appreciation of the goals and challenges faced by each discipline.
Conformity has also improved transportation and air quality modeling by improving the data available, making the same data available to both sets of planners, and better integrating transportation and air quality analyses. Improvements in consultation and modeling seem to have had a synergistic effect, because more interagency consultation has led to improved confidence in modeling results. According to the Harvard conformity study, conformity related improvements in planning methods are valuable not only for consideration of air quality improvement programs but also for other planning purposes.
Conformity has had an impact on the development of both transportation and air quality plans. It has led some communities to reconsider the timetables for and scale of some transportation projects, particularly in high growth areas such as Atlanta, Denver, and Houston.
Charlotte, North Carolina also grappled with meeting conformity and, as a result, changed its transportation plan with broad public support. North Carolina's population growth is twice the national average, and the amount of vehicle miles driven per year is growing three to five times faster than the population is growing. In 1997, Charlotte couldn't pass the conformity tests, and Charlotte's Department of Transportation realized it needed an alternative to continued congestion. They created a transit and land use plan. Local officials and the community overwhelmingly supported the plan because it addressed quality of life issues for the city. Voters in Charlotte passed a referendum to raise $50 million per year for the new transit plan. By adopting this plan, the city was able to meet conformity and will have a transportation system that preserves healthy air.
Conformity has also had an impact on the other half of the process, that of air quality planning. Having to demonstrate conformity prompted some areas to adjust or amend their air quality plans to accommodate more growth in vehicle travel. Areas must demonstrate conformity for the entire 20-year time frame of the transportation plan, which has been challenging in some high growth areas. However, EPA believes that analyzing the entire 20-year transportation planning horizon is a fundamental tool for achieving the goals of the Clean Air Act. Congress clearly intended that areas maintain healthy air even after they have attained the air quality standards. Considering the impacts for the entire length of the transportation plan ensures that long-term motor vehicle emissions stay at or below attainment levels and public health is protected. EPA will assist areas that want to revise their air quality plans to more directly address future transportation growth. Some areas, such as Denver, Salt Lake, and Portland have extended their air quality planning process to take the 20-year length of the transportation plan into account. These areas are looking farther out into the future to ensure their air quality will still be healthy even as they grow, adding population, cars, and more highways.
Conformity has prompted areas to adopt other projects and programs that have an air quality benefit, such as transportation control measures (TCMs); zoning and other land use measures; additional mobile source emissions control measures, such as inspection/maintenance programs or clean fuel programs; and stationary source emissions control measures. Conformity also ensures that transportation actions which are part of a clean air plan get the funding they need, so that planning for air quality doesn't just happen on paper.
I would now like to address the recent decision by the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit regarding a lawsuit that the Environmental Defense Fund had filed against EPA. As a result of the court's decision in March, certain features of how conformity is implemented had to change. However, we did not appeal the court's decision because we've developed a workable approach with DOT and the Department of Justice that minimizes the impact to areas as they implement the court's decision, and that is legally defensible. In addition, we believe that the court decision is more protective of public health than our initial regulation.
For example, the court addressed what transportation projects can proceed when an area cannot demonstrate conformity. When an area fails its conformity tests, it cannot proceed with new projects until it fixes the problem, but construction projects that have already been funded can continue. In our 1993 conformity rule, projects were "grandfathered" once they had received National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) approval. At that time, we believed that grandfathering at the point of NEPA approval best balanced public health with transportation goals. Unfortunately, since 1997, it has become clear that this grandfathering provision could allow a large number of transportation projects to advance even though more recent planning projections may have been developed.
The approach that we developed in response to the court decision better protects air quality. Under the court decision, a project can continue if DOT has made a commitment to fund it, that is, has authorized it for construction. The step authorizing construction comes after NEPA approval. With this interpretation, there is still a point where a project is "safe" from disruption by air quality concerns. Projects far along in the process won't be halted. But, by proceeding only with those projects that have been funded for construction, we avoid creating a large pipeline of projects that could be built even when we know that they may contribute to an air quality problem and further prevent an area from demonstrating conformity.
This change in the former grandfathering provision only affects those areas that cannot demonstrate conformity. At the present time, there are only seven such areas, five of which will resolve their conformity problems in just a few months.
The court's decision also addressed using air quality plans that have been submitted to EPA, but not yet approved. EPA has taken action to minimize any short-term disruption to existing conformity determinations. We have developed a long-term approach that will allow air quality plans to be used for conformity soon after they are submitted to EPA.
Along with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and now the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), conformity has and will be part of a coordinated movement towards considering the social, economic, energy, and environmental goals of planning our nation's transportation system. Conformity has a number of "good government" benefits, such as better communication between air and transportation agencies; better air quality plans and transportation plans; more informed decisionmaking; opportunities to inform the public about transportation impacts; and improved public participation. While the recent court decision called into question some of the procedures by which we have implemented the conformity provisions of the Clean Air Act, we have been able to revise those procedures in a reasonable and measured way. We believe that the conformity program will continue to be a valuable tool for protecting public health.
Thank you again for this opportunity to discuss our program with you. I would be happy to respond to any questions that you may have.