Statement of Senator Craig Thomas
Hearing on Reauthorization of ISTEA
Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Environment and Public Works Committee March 19, 1997

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing today. I think it is important that we examine the environmental programs and the state and local planning provisions of ISTEA. Some of these programs have been successful and should be continued; however, some should be changed or dropped entirely.

I am deeply concerned about the environmental planning process and its effect on safety. For example, the design work on the Cody to Yellowstone Highway (U.S. 14/16/20) started in 1987, but the preliminary design on two-thirds of the project is still not complete. The design work is on hold until the Wyoming Department of Transportation and various federal agencies can resolve certain differences on recreation and fish an wildlife mitigation issues. These delays have exacerbated problems with a road that is unsafe and in dire need of improvement. In fact, accident rates on segments of this highway continue to far exceed the Wyoming average by as much as 225 percent. In addition, tourist traffic to Yellowstone National Park over this road will increase by more than 50 percent over the next 20 years. In the reauthorization of ISTEA, we must find a way to get the Federal Highway Administration, the environmental community, the States and all other interested parties involved in the process so that we can shorten the time and lessen the design costs of important projects like this one.

Another safety issue that involves the planning process is the current prohibition on using safety set-aside money on the Interstate system. In Wyoming, one of the most useful safety features on our system is the addition of "rumble strips" on the shoulders of our Interstate highways. They are particularly effective on rural Interstate highways. The use of safety set aside money for this type of work would be ideal. Although the Administration claims that safety is its top priority, it's NEXTEA proposal does nothing to address this issue. However, the bill Senators Baucus, Kempthorne and I are about to introduce, the Surface Transportation Authorization and Regulatory Streamlining Act (STARS 2000) will make this important change to ensure safer highways in rural America.

An environmental issue I am interested in examining today is the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program. I hope the Administration will do a better job of explaining the effects of the proposed National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) on CMAQ. I am troubled by this proposal that will take more and more money from the Surface Transportation Program (STP) that otherwise would help address some of Wyoming's roads needs in order to pay for air quality problems in other parts of the country. Two other "environmental" programs that should be looked at are the enhancements and the recreational trails programs. While we will hear from some strong advocates of enhancements today, I believe we should allow states and localities to make the decisions about these projects, not the federal government. At the very least, the program should be maintained at its current level, not increased as the Administration proposes. We need to take a hard look at our priorities. For example, 44 percent of Wyoming's roads are in fair to poor condition and Yellowstone National Park faces $250 million in road needs while receiving less than $10 million annually. That is where my focus during the reauthorization of ISTEA will be.

Recreational trails, however, is an entirely different program. I agree with my colleague Senator Kempthorne, who has done great work on this issue. The program operates on a "user pays" system. It is the only one of these programs that is financed by user fees -- from taxes on fuel purchased for use on recreational trails and in outdoor recreation equipment, which are paid into the national recreation trails trust fund established by ISTEA. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that this user fee brings in somewhere between $65 and $120 million annually. Yet the Administration has proposed to spend $7 million per year on this program. I find this proposal for recreational trails to be completely inadequate. STARS 2000 addresses this important issue and I encourage the Administration to reconsider its position.

Finally, Congress and the Administration need to think about reducing federal regulation of state and local governments. We took a big step forward a year and a half ago under the National Highway System Designation Act, but more work remains to be done. We need to simplify prescriptive interpretations of federal regulations by several federal agencies. We should also consider initiatives that review and reduce many obsolete and unnecessary regulations on state and local governments. This will ensure that American taxpayers will get more for their fuel tax dollars.

Again, Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing. I am hopeful these concerns will be addressed today.