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Breathing Room

Grants benefit public transportation funding while tougher ozone standards endanger it.

Publication date: September 1, 2007

By Steve Barlas

Tighter Ozone Standard Threatens Highway Departments

If a new EPA proposal becomes reality, as many as 530 counties could lose federal highway funding if they fail to comply with more stringent ozone standards.

The current standard of 0.08 parts per million (ppm) was set in 1997, the first decrease since the Clean Air Act was passed. On July 11, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson told the U.S. Senate Committe on Environment and Public Works that new evidence on the effects of ozone concentrations moved the agency to propose lowering the standard to 0.075 ppm to 0.070 ppm. The EPA is taking comments on that proposal with hearings in five major cities. No ruling date is set.

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) wants the EPA to retain the current standard. Nick Goldstein, assistant general counsel for ARTBA, says 103 counties are still trying to meet the current standard. By the EPA's own estimates, 400 additional counties would initially fail a lower standard.

If counties fail to comply after a subsequent grace period, they likely will face lawsuits from environmental groups alleging that their “non-attainment” status makes them ineligible for federal transportation funds. ARTBA has been party to similar federal lawsuits in the recent past.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Committe on Environment and Public Works, says the proposed new standard isn't tough enough.

Boxer points out that an independent advisory committee of outside experts, appointed by Johnson in March, unanimously recommended the current standard be lowered to a range of 0.060 to 0.070 ppm. Environmental groups want a 0.060 ppm standard.

Homeland Security Concerns Boost Transportation Funding

In July, Congress approved a bill that authorizes significantly higher appropriations for the first time in four years and establishes a capital grant program.

The public transit grants authorized by the Improving America's Security Act of 2007 (H.R. 1) implement recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. President Bush signed the bill in August. Although Congress had been appropriating $65 million annually for the program since 2003, there was no real authorization so appropriations bounced around, dropping as low as $50 million and jumping as high as $275 million in FY2007.

The signing of H.R. 1 puts the grant program on firm legal footing for the first time, and, just as importantly, establishes authorization levels for the next four years:

  • $650 million for FY 2008
  • $750 million for FY 2009
  • $900 million for FY 2010
  • $1.1 billion for FY 2011.

The bill specifically designates the kind of capital programs that will be eligible for funding—building tunnel protection systems, establishing perimeter protection, buying fire suppression equipment, and other programs. The U.S. secretary of transportation—or, more likely, the director of the Federal Transit Administration—will establish a priority list of capital spending needs, based on talks with local agencies; this may dictate to some extent how the DOT dispenses the grant money.

There's just one possible catch: The House passed its Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations bill for FY 2008, which begins Oct. 1, before the House and Senate agreed on a final version of H.R. 1.

Although the Senate Committee on Appropriations includes the same $400 million appropriations for FY 2008 as the House, that money also goes toward an intercity rail security grant program. It may be hard to convince a House-Senate conference committee on DHS appropriations to okay the 2008 authorization level of $650 million endorsed in H.R. 1. But the prospects for getting appropriations in 2009, 2010, and 2011 are considerably better.

— Steve Barlas has served as a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer for trade and professional magazines since 1981. In that time, he has covered nearly every federal regulatory agency, cabinet department, and congressional committee, with a special emphasis on the EPA.