The Rhode Island Sierra Club in particular, and the environmental community generally, believes ISTEA reforms ARE starting to work effectively, and it should be reauthorized without major changes in its framework. There are however, some ways in which we believe it should be strengthened.
1. Why have environmentalists come to care so much about transportation?
We are of course concerned with our own mobility. But it has also become so evident that transportation impacts the environment in so many important ways, not just with regard to air quality, but also on noise, on energy extraction and transport, on runoff and water quality, and most profoundly, on land use. Past automobile-dominated transportation policies have promoted urban sprawl with all its implications for damaging forests, wildlife, agriculture, and also he older cities - and town centers, all the while intensifying consumption of resources. This wide variety of impacts makes almost every aspect of ISTEA a concern. Our support for "alternative" transportation is not based on some kind of nostalgia for the past but because of these impacts. I submit a handout of some statistical information to explain our concern.
2. What evidence is there that environmentalists do care about transportation?
The R.I. Sierra Club proposed a resolution on ISTEA renewal to the Environment Council of Rhode Island. This resolution, which was passed unanimously and enthusiastically on February 5, 1997, is submitted for the record. The resolution is consistent with the five principles described in "`A Blueprint for ISTEA Renewal" put out by the Surface Transportation Policy Project (this is being submitted for the record) and the R.I. Sierra Club has helped organize a road coalition of what is now 40 community, environmental, preservation and labor groups in our state that have endorsed these principles.
3. In what ways is ISTEA working?
It has made environmental protection more central to transportation planning. Indeed "environmental impact" is one of the five major screens used by our TAC or evaluating transportation proposals. It has greatly expanded the role of the MPCs and the public in this process, resulting in a much better spirit of cooperation between community groups and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDCT) which previously had a long history of bitter conflicts. (For example there was a long fight over a proposed I-84 Providence-Hartford Interstate which was resolved only when the EPA and the Council on Environmental Quality finally backed the citizens. In my own town of North Providence RIDOT proposed to speed traffic by straightening and widening Fruit Hill Avenue, eliminating all the old trees on this residential street. RIDOT traffic engineers thought only of the motorists, and not of the community living there. That no longer happens.) Public participation also gives those without cars, (whether due to low incomes, disabilities, or a choice to live car-free) an opportunity to be heard. Indeed the city of Providence reported to the TAC that 23% of the households in the city have no motor vehicles! Their interests need to be considered.
We have more flexibility on design standards. It has become routine to consider ways to scale down proposed projects to solve problems with minimum cost, and minimum destruction.
We are making a real start on fixing our highway infrastructure, especially the Interstates and the bridges.
We are directing resources to revitalizing older business districts where people can walk instead of having to drive to carry out even the simplest errand. (Please note the lead story "Creative Enhancements in Neighborhood business Districts" in the Winter/Spring 1996 TranScripts, the transportation newsletter of our MPO, and the Summer 1995 TranScripts article "ISTEA: Impetus to Economic Development in Central Business Districts".)
We are developing the potential for a first class bicycle network. This is not a trivial issue when one considers bicycle tourism, featured prominently in the current "Traveler" and "Guide to the Ocean State" tourism publications. Bikeways feature prominently in the article "Greenways Taking Route Across Rhode Island" in the Summer 1995 TranScripts. Thanks to a CMAQ grant, bicycles may soon be carried by RIPTA buses, opening up new opportunities for commuting, recreation and tourism.
With a more level playing field, we have been able to maintain our transit system, which increased ridership substantially since ISTEA was passed. We have at least made a start on protecting Narragansett Bay from pollution due to runoff from the I-95 corridor.
This does not mean that everything is perfect! We wish some changes came faster. There are projects in our Transportation Improvement Program that we object to. But if we get a fair shot to influence the decisions, bad projects are not the fault of Congress or of ISTEA, but perhaps of our failure to convince others.
4. What are the problems that Congress should address?
We must overcome any opposition to funding CMAQ and Enhancements. I strongly commend President Clinton and our own Senator John Chafee for their leadership in recognizing the importance on those programs. "Enhancements" are vital for our communities and popular with citizens, the TAC has often heard town planners and citizens speak for enhancement type projects at our public meetings. We are disappointed that many of the enhancement projects have not been implemented more rapidly. It would be helpful if Congress would find a way to cut the red tape and administrative overhead on small enhancement projects that can be administered by local governments.
We need to expand the flexibility of the Surface Transportation Program to include rail. It is ironic that Federal policy allows use of ISTEA funds for relatively) local commuter rail projects, but not for our intercity rail system even if a state thinks that is the best way to solve a transportation problem. How can any state object to being allowed to, but not required to, apply ISTEA funds to intercity rail? We all know there are environmental advantages to rail travel, we must make greater use of their underutilized rights of way. To help keep and improve our national passenger rail system we support dedication of 1/2 cent of the Federal gas tax for a Rail Trust Fund to be used for Amtrak capital improvement as a most reasonable way to do this. Motorists too will benefit, from improved environmental quality, reduced congestion, and more choice as to travel modes.
Freight rail too has environmental benefits so it too should be eligible for ISTEA funding. We need to reverse the years of neglect that has hurt our New England freight rail system in order to maximize our chance for environmentally responsible economic development. Funding the modern freight rail connections needed to Quonset Point has been difficult but Rhode Island taxpayers are doing their share. With the wholehearted support of the environmental community, we strongly approved a statewide bond issue for this purpose. The next ISTEA should make such projects easier!
Congress must resist efforts to allow longer or heavier trucks. We cannot afford it. We are already spending a substantial part of our ISTEA funding (about 57%) just to maintain existing interstates and bridges. It is widely believed this is in no small part due to the pounding they take from existing truck loads. The RI Sierra Club is part of the Southern New England Safe Roads Coalition which is submitting some comments for the record including a graph of now road damage grows exponentially with weight. Even now most motorists hate the size of trucks already allowed and would see any expansion as a safety hazard. It is no use leaving it to the states, inevitably pressure to allow bigger trucks will prevail.
Our RIPTA transit system faces both opportunities and peril. Energetic leadership, an opportunity for labor-management cooperation, new service initiatives, the coming of a major new downtown mall, all suggest potential for growth. However funding is critical. The expected loss of Federal operating assistance will hurt middle sized systems such as RIPTA more than big systems Less dependent on operating support, or small systems, slated to get continued operating support. Unfunded ADA paratransit requirements (RIPTA is implementing full compliance rather than seeking a waiver!) also adds to deficits that may average about $10 million in FY 1999 and beyond. While we would prefer to see operating assistance continue, if not it is essential that language be found to make maintenance and protection of the buses that Federal grants help buy be eligible for capital funding. Also, our experience here is that more must be done to level the playing field between transit and auto commuting. Congress should equalize the tax-free benefits of parking and transit, and develop at Least voluntary programs to encourage "parking cashout" and alternative transportation. Congress should consider putting the power of the market to work by developing funding formulas that reward states and localities that successfully brow transit ridership and/or reduce per capita vehicle miles travelled.
Transit helps all our environmental goals. I urge everyone to give it a try and use it whenever practicable.
5. What about demonstration projects?
Environmentalists nationwide are skeptical about this ISTEA element but if hey are to be retained we do have some suggestions. A project of national and regional significance to us is the North Station-South Station rail link in Boston. This would connect Rhode Island and the entire Northeast Corridor to -northern New England and northern New England to us. If NHS "high priority corridor" funding is unavailable it should be considered for demonstration funding. We understand about $200 million will be needed over five years to do he environmental and engineering work.
We also suggest consideration of funding a real bus station in Kennedy Plaza, Providence, our transit system hub. This is also a social justice issue, the mostly lower income people who use these buses need a safe, secure, lighted, weather-sheltered place to wait with reliable information. Finally we urge continuing efforts to mitigate pollution from runoff into Narragansett Bay. The Narragansett Bay Commission is facing up to $590 million in costs to eliminate combined sewage-stormwater overflow, and users of transportation facilities that contribute to this problem should pay their fair share of -cleanup costs.
In closing I wish to note Rhode Island has plenty of ideas, talent, and energy, needed to make our transportation system work. As a TAC member I've been impressed by the new leadership at RIDOT and RIPTA, by the wide variety of community groups involved which include landscape architects, neighborhood associations, environmental organizations, bicycle clubs, historic preservation groups, and by the interest of town planners and local officials involved in transportation issues. I urge Congress to do its part to keep this all going by renewing a strong ISTEA along its principles of environmental protection, maintenance of the infrastructure, community revitalization, flexibility, and public participation. Thank you again for this opportunity to comment.
RI Sierra Club