Testimony of Meg Maguire, President of Scenic America
Environment and Public Works Committee
United States Senate
Hearing on TEA-21 Reauthorization
“The Transportation Needs of Small Towns and Rural Places”
August 20, 2002
Mr. Chairman, I am Meg Maguire, President of Scenic America. On behalf of our Board and members we appreciate the opportunity to present written testimony on the re-authorization of TEA-21. We are proud to have been associated with this legislation for the past 13 years. Scenic America is a founding member of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, the coalition that helped gain new transportation solutions to benefit communities including the National Scenic Byways Program; Transportation Enhancements; and programs affecting air quality, land use planning, and much more. We thank Congress for these far-reaching programs which have benefited travelers, residents of communities large and small, and local businesses.
Scenic America is a national, nonprofit organization that helps communities nationwide protect their scenic beauty and distinctive community character. We have 10 state affiliates and 15 associate organizations throughout the country. We are dedicated to the proposition that change is inevitable; ugliness is not.
In re-authorization of TEA-21, Scenic America urges Congress to take the following steps:
· Increase and make entirely merit-based the funding for the National Scenic Byways Program; and continue eligibility for state scenic byways programs.
· Mandate that all federally-funded highway projects be planned according to the simple and well-established principles of context-sensitive highway design (CSD) and that they promote physically active communities;
· Preserve all categories of enhancements funding including funding for billboard removal and acquisition of scenic easements;
· Approach environmental streamlining as an administrative issue rather than a legislative issue that would weaken the key environmental laws that now ensure citizen participation and expert study of proposed transportation projects; and
· Resist any efforts by the billboard industry in TEA-21 re-authorization to further tamper with the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 or the Bonus Act. These laws badly need to be overhauled, but they require a level of attention not possible or desirable in such a complex bill as TEA-21. We recommend a thorough Congressional inquiry in 2004.
The National Scenic Byways program works. The Program now boasts 75 National Scenic Byways and 20 All American Roads. Communities come together to develop a corridor management plan to protect outstanding natural, historic, cultural and scenic resources; and to strengthen local businesses by promoting tourism. The Byways program is highly popular with the 46 participating states plus the District of Columbia -- an ideal partnership between federal, state and local governments, non-profit organizations, and the business community.
Last December, at the10th Anniversary Celebration of the National Scenic Byways Program the byways community, primarily but not exclusively people from small towns and rural America, came together to share successes and plan for the future. The meeting affirmed the high performance we have witnessed in the program:
1. Byways produce profits. Many small businesses have begun and flourished along scenic byways. In rural Arkansas along Crowley’s Ridge, there are 17 new tourist-oriented businesses plus a new Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum. In Vermont, the proprietor of the Strong House Inn testified to her direct profit from working with other business owners in New York and Vermont to promote the full length of the Lake Champlain Byway.
2. Byway grants leverage significant funds from other sources. The San Juan Skyway in Colorado received a $6,800 scenic byways grant and additional funding to complete a $39,000 plan. To implement the plan, the participating counties, a college, several nonprofit organizations, the U.S. Forest Service, and the State of Colorado raised over $6 million to preserve mining and railroad sites. And in Wisconsin, along the Great River Road, byways grants are helping leverage funds for 33 interpretive kiosks and the Great River Road Scenic Byway Learning Center.
3. Byways protect, market, and interpret six irreplaceable resources -- scenic, historic, cultural, archaeological, natural, and recreational. Scenic easements and billboard removal funding has helped maintain beautiful views along a number of corridors. Byways communities are recognizing and restoring natural resources along byway corridors; and interpreting local history and culture along these regional corridors. Cyclists and hikers are finding new opportunities to enjoy recreation along the byways too.
4. The National Scenic Byways Program is a bottom-up program in which designated roads are recognized and put forward by the states. The foundation of the national program is at the state level. All national scenic byways must first be part of a state scenic byways system (46 states participate including those represented by most members of this committee). That means that in states like Alaska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and West Virginia significant resource protection and economic development are occurring as a direct result of the state initiated scenic byways. Therefore, in TEA-21 re-authorization, it is important that states continue to be eligible for grant support to build the programs within their states.
I also want to commend the FHWA and America’s Scenic Byways Resource Center in Duluth, MN for providing strong technical support and a fair process in running this program. We believe that the current administrative and assistance arrangement should continue and be strengthened in the years ahead. If all federal programs could show beneficial results comparable to the National Scenic Byways Program, the American people would have much greater confidence in the use of their tax dollars.
The National Scenic Byways Program merits substantially increased funding as it grows and continues to yield community benefits. Scenic America fully recognizes the tight financial constraints Congress faces in funding this bill. Our research included information from FHWA and several states to develop what we believe to be a conservative and defensible estimate of the increases in program re-authorization.
Under ISTEA the program received a total authorization of $80 million over six years. Under TEA-21, funding has been approximately $25 million/year for a total $148 million over six years. Each year the FHWA rejects an average of 60 percent of total funding requests. According to officials in the FHWA and several states, there is an extensive screening program at the state level, so FHWA is truly picking the best of the best. Virtually all of the proposals should and would receive grants if funds were available. Our recommendations on funding levels take into account the following:
· current unmet demand;
· the recent addition of Mississippi to the prog;
· the increase of nationally designated byways to 95 in June 2002; and
· growing political pressure for state byways programs in Texas and Pennsylvania.
Based on our research we believe that there is ample justification for an increase in funding beginning at $57 million in FY 2004, increasing by $2 million each year to account for inflation and modest new additions to the system up to $67 million in FY 2009. Over the six years of the bill the total authorization level would be $372 million.
Finally, we must comment on an effort last year to transform the National Scenic Byways grant program from a purely merit-based program to an earmarked program, with all the funds going to Congressionally selected projects in particular states. Cries of distress went up from many grant applicants who have played by the rules and were under consideration for funding. Was all of their painstaking work on corridor plans, leveraging of resources, and grant applications for naught? How was it possible for Congress to snatch away a merit-based program with such a fine record of achievement? Scenic America, the American Recreation Coalition and the National Trust for Historic Preservation vigorously opposed that effort. In the end, with $8.5 million of the approximately $25 million in byways funding falling to earmarking, about $16.5 million was awarded to merit-based programs.
We urge Congress to ensure that grants under the program, at whatever level of funding, remain based entirely on merit.
Context-Sensitive Highway Design
Context Sensitive Highway Design (CSD) should be required in planning all federally funded projects. CSD is a significant breakthrough in transportation policy and we thank Congress for its past wisdom in recognizing that roads need not destroy vital resources.
Section 1016 (a) of ISTEA permitted the Secretary of DOT to approve projects designed to standards that allowed for the preservation of historic or scenic values. The National Highway System (NHS) Act of 1995 strengthened this emphasis on context-sensitive highway design with a provision in Section 304 that states:
A design for new construction, reconstruction, resurfacing...restoration or rehabilitation of a highway on the National Highway System (other than a highway also on the Interstate System) may take into account...(A) the constructed and natural environment of the area; (B) the environmental, scenic, aesthetic, historic, community, and preservation impacts of the activity; and (C) access for other modes of transportation.
To take advantage of this progressive and visionary federal language, five pilot states -- Connecticut, Maryland, Kentucky, Minnesota and Utah -- have adopted context-sensitive design, retrained their project managers and engineers, and sponsored region-wide training for other states. Vermont and New Jersey have legislation that sets new standards and criteria; California has issued administrative guidelines and several other states are seriously considering doing so. Some highway engineers are getting the message that people have a deep love of the places where they live and want road building to respect the assets of their communities. Federal legislation has helped immeasurably to bridge this understanding.
The results are exciting. For example, in Maryland, local public officials report that the State Highway Administration is working with communities as never before to achieve new solutions that respect both needs for sound community transportation and resource conservation.
In addition, CSD promotes active communities. The Centers for Disease Control have identified obesity as one of the greatest threats to public health. Conventional transportation design, with its emphasis on the automobile and diminished regard for bicycle and pedestrian safety, promotes a lack of physical activity and thereby contributes to obesity, while designing transportation systems to promote physical activity does the opposite. For example, surveys have shown that more than 60 percent of all adults say they would start walking or walk more often if they had access to safe and secure pedestrian pathways. CSD would provide that access.
Today we request that you make two small changes to the language in the NHS:
1. Change the words “...may take into account...” to “...shall take into account.” In drafting the National Highway System Act, the original context-sensitive design language under consideration by former Congressman Bud Shuster and this committee used the word “shall,” but this was changed at the last minute to “may.” Based on the evidence of the last 10 years showing greatly improved project results using context-sensitive design, we are convinced that no road should be built with federal funding that does not incorporate context-sensitive design principles and standards. In TEA-21 re-authorization, we strongly urge Congress to go with its original instinct and require states to incorporate context-sensitive highway design into all federally funded projects.
2. Amend Section (C) to read “access for other modes of transportation including those that promote physically active communities.” We also strongly urge Congress to respond to the intense national concerns voiced by the Centers for Disease Control on the need to create active communities to fight obesity and heart disease by requiring federally-funded transportation projects to promote “access for other modes of transportation, including those that promote physically active communities.” We believe that this addition will encourage the integration of national public health objectives into transportation planning without being prescriptive about how that is done.
TEA-21’s enormously popular Transportation Enhancements program has yielded benefits for thousands of communities, from small towns and rural counties to our nation’s largest cities. Scenic America works with the Rails to Trails Conservancy, the American Recreation Coalition, and dozens of other groups to monitor and promote the program. Let me reinforce several recommendations from our coalition. We believe that Congress should:
Protect the current funding level and allocation formula;
· Improve obligation rates in the states so that there is more timely expenditure of funds;
· Keep the current time-tested funding eligibility categories, including billboard removal and control and acquisition of scenic easements; and
· Do not open up this program to a variety of other uses not in line with the original intent of the program.
Recently there has been much blame for project delay placed on our environmental laws -- the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969; the National Historic Preservation Act, particularly Section 106; and the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, particularly Section 4(f). These laws have ensured citizen participation and thorough study of projects before they take place. Further, independent study of project delay finds many other factors that contribute including lack of funds for personnel to conduct reviews and to build projects. We urge you in the strongest terms to approach the issue of environmental streamlining as an administrative and appropriations issue, not as a legislative issue in TEA-21. We offer to work with you to examine the kinds of projects now subject to intensive environmental review that might receive less intensive review; and to make funding available to the states so that they have adequate personnel to review complex projects. Through this process, we can achieve economies for the taxpayer, timely benefits for communities, opportunities for all stakeholders to participate in the planning and design process, and insurance that the study process preceding public investment is thorough and based on expert evaluation. Let’s achieve all we can through administrative streamlining before we consider amending laws that have served our country well.
Finally, we urge you to resist any efforts by the billboard industry or others to tamper with any aspects of current federal billboard laws within TEA-21 re-authorization.
This is not because we support current federal law and administration of billboard control through the misnamed Highway Beautification Act (HBA) or the unfunded Bonus Act. The HBA is so bad and so distorted from Lady Bird Johnson’s original intent that it needs its own studies, hearings, Congressional review and new legislation. The billboard industry has made a joke of this law by thwarting communities from cleaning up their visual environment, eroding rural visual quality on our federal highways, permitting cutting of public trees on public lands for private billboard visibility, and much more. I will submit for the record our 1997 report, The Highway Beautification Act: A Broken Law that documents the problems to which I have referred.
Senator Jeffords introduced the last effort to reform the HBA in 1997 and we are grateful for his interest in this issue. Vermont, one of four billboard free states, has been well-served by not having to deal with the billboard industry since 1978. We believe that the TEA-21 re-authorization process is not the venue for making any changes to current billboard law. Instead, we hope that Congress will consider undertaking a thorough, fair, and open reexamination of federal billboard control measures after TEA-21 re-authorization.
ISTEA and TEA-21 have led to stronger communities; transportation systems that work with the land, not against it; and a reawakening of a sense of place throughout both rural and urban America. We urge Congress to take those steps outlined at the beginning of this testimony as you improve TEA-21 for the future.
I thank you for the opportunity to share Scenic America’s views.