Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing today, and to our witnesses, thank you for taking the time to be here.
The connection between transportation and air quality is clear. Its interesting that at the same time this hearing is being held, the Banking Committee, on which I also serve, is having a hearing on transit. Talking about transit should remind us that it is simplest to manage air pollution from a vehicle that rarely hits the road – or even easier from one that is never built. Whatever we can do to reduce the number of vehicles on the road in any given day is important. But we should also remember, although today’s hearing is not about this, we should continue to help our colleagues take steps to improve the mileage of vehicles and reduce the emissions from them.
Today’s hearing is about the TEA-21 Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program, which has been a successful effort to pursue our dual goals of improved mobility through reduced traffic congestion and a better environment through reduced air emissions. We should seek to build upon this legacy of effectiveness through the reauthorization of TEA-21. By strengthening the program and providing more resources, we can continue to hand our states and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) the tools they need to improve air quality while enhancing mobility.
Transportation remains the dominant source of air pollution in our nation, posing a significant threat to public health. As a former Governor, I understand the challenges states face in meeting clean air and conformity requirements. In Delaware, mobile source emissions account for over one half of the state’s emissions inventory. Two of Delaware’s three counties - including New Castle County where I-95 runs - are currently non-attainment areas, with the third county most likely joining them as the new PM2.5 and 8-hour Ozone standards are put in place.
However, Delaware has managed to remain in conformity with its State Implementation Plan (SIP). The State has accomplished this by taking advantage of the CMAQ program to fund transportation projects that reduce emissions, by strengthening long-term air quality/transportation planning processes and by facilitating close collaboration and cooperation between the State’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the Department of Transportation in harmonizing air quality and transportation goals.
I believe we can improve the existing CMAQ program structure to provide even more benefits to air quality, while preserving the flexibility our states need to maintain our transportation network and improve our quality of life. To do this, we must first expand the amount of resources devoted to CMAQ. As more regions across our country face conformity issues, it is appropriate to expand available funds to meet the increasing needs. Out of this larger pot, we should make PM2.5 and 8-hour ozone non-attainment and maintenance areas eligible for CMAQ funding. We should devise a way to fund former non-attainment areas as needed to ensure continued attainment, and fund CMAQ projects in travel corridors feeding into non-attainment areas.
Additionally, we should consider extending project funding by phasing it in over time and adopt an interim policy of funding projects beyond three years on a case-by-case basis based on continuing air quality benefits.
To ensure that CMAQ resources are well spent and deliver the maximum air quality benefits, greater emphasis should be placed on projects that will result in direct, timely, and sustained air quality benefits. I believe state air quality agencies could help determine such projects by participating in a well-defined consultation and concurrence process during CMAQ project selection. The state air quality agency could establish criteria for identifying air quality benefits and determining a minimum air quality benefit threshold for projects. This would help ensure projects with the most impact get top priority for funding while still providing flexibility to the states to set their own standards and transportation agendas. Part of this process would be providing state resources to improve data collection so that we can clearly understand the impacts of transportation projects on air quality.
Also, where we can make the conformity process more consistent, with planning horizons and the frequency of updates harmonized, we should. The purpose of the conformity requirement is to ensure a healthy and safe environment for us all and we must focus on reaching that result. We should maintain regular and timely analyses to demonstrate compliance of constrained Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP’s) and Regional Transportation Plan (RTP’s) with State Implementation Plan (SIP’s) motor vehicle budgets, and possibly combine the TIP and RTP into one document to better harmonize timelines. Additionally, we should conduct conformity analyses on the combined TIP/RTP document no less than once every three years and retain the 20-year planning horizon for transportation plans. Because the conformity of transportation plans to air quality plans is critical to achieving clean air goals, particularly given the continued increase in motor vehicle use and vehicle miles traveled, preserving, and improving upon, the basic conformity requirements and schedules now in place is crucial.
States and regions also need the flexibility that CMAQ provides to address their attainment goals. We need to further that flexibility by explicitly making both freight and intercity passenger rail eligible activities through the CMAQ program. Rail’s ability to reduce emissions by taking drivers and trucks off the road is well documented and CMAQ has been used so far to fund rail projects in my state and others. We must push to make rail clearly eligible to encourage these types of investments when they can be shown to benefit air quality directly.
Combined, these changes could make a good program even better, bringing CMAQ into the 21st century with an even stronger focus on air quality. But in this effort, we must also not forget the daunting issue of congestion. In fact, I believe that congestion is perhaps the single biggest transportations challenge facing my state and the nation. Yet, the CMAQ program is the only TEA-21 program specifically aimed at fighting congestion. While I absolutely support the connection between air quality improvements and congestion reduction, I believe it is perhaps time to take congestion on, front and center, in new program. Simply put, congestion is too big for CMAQ, at its $1.35 billion annual funding level, to fight alone.
According to the US DOT, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) have more than doubled over the past 20 years, with similar predictions for the next 20 years. Meanwhile, our highway infrastructure has roughly reached its development maximum, thereby greatly increasing congestion. We need to promote more options to fight congestion through transit, passenger and freight rail, smarter development, land use and other strategies. By providing more resources and enhanced flexibility to states and MPO’s through a new program to fight congestion directly, we could make major improvements in mobility, while also including safeguards to ensure such projects are commiserate with a states’ air quality goals.
Mr. Chairman, in conclusion I will say that we have an important task ahead of us. The two major contributors to air pollution – transportation and electricity generation – will be topics we should debate this year, and I hope we will. The fact is that we must make significant progress on both of these sources of pollutants. I think we all know it’s the right thing to do. We should put out heads together and find a way to strengthen the conformity and CMAQ tools we have, and consider others if necessary, and I look forward to working with you and the committee to get something done that we can both agree to.