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February 22, 2012

House Transportation Bill: Clear-Cutting Environmental Safeguards

Tillamook_clearcutWe’ve talked about how awful the transportation bill in the House of Representatives is – it’s an all-out attack on public transportation and opens virtually every inch of our nation’s coasts to drilling. House Speaker John Boehner made the process dirtier last week when he split the bill into three sections because he lacked the votes to pass it.

While the bill’s attacks on clean transportation options have been well documented, one issue that has not been as highly covered is the absolute evisceration of our bedrock environmental review laws, one of the worst moves in it being:

  • Combining unachievable deadlines for reviews with a rubber stamp – In an extreme departure from current law, the bill would require that all environmental reviews be completed within 270 days and automatically approve any project that does not achieve that arbitrary deadline – regardless of the project’s impacts on communities, the environment, or the economy. Instead of trying to find the best project for a community, this provision would rubber stamp any project as long as the sponsors ran out the clock.

Republicans have long wanted to rollback environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, passed with broad bipartisan support under President Nixon. This landmark legislation ensures that the public has a say in large infrastructure projects and that the builders must consider several versions in order to find a design that reduces environmental impacts. To see how the review process works, check out the Road to Better Transportation Projects report, released by Sierra Club and NRDC.

Under the House transportation bill, emboldened Republicans are no longer trying to selectively eliminate parts of our environmental review process, they are proposing to clear-cut the whole thing.

The list of attacks is long, but the most egregious besides the one I listed above include:

  • Eliminating reviews altogether for projects under an arbitrary threshold – Under the bill, no environmental review would be conducted for projects with a price tag of less than $10 million or where federal funding is less than 15% of the total project. Shutting the public out of decisions where millions are at stake would leave communities to bear the impacts of new projects, so long as they came in under such an arbitrary threshold.  
  • Severely limiting public input in the judicial review process – Under the bill, anyone wishing to file a complaint about a project would be forced to do so within 90 days of a decision, down from 180 days. Further, the bill would significantly limit those who could challenge a project. Many citizens and community groups lack the resources to quickly challenge worrisome transportation projects; these changes would further stiff-arm public input.
  • Restricting what alternatives can be considered – Studying alternatives to a proposed project helps fully inform the public and decision-makers. The bill would prevent consideration a whole host of alternatives, particularly those that could include smart growth, transit-friendly plans, or not building the project.
  • Exempting a broad range of highway projects from review – Under the House bill, any project conducted within an existing right-of-way or any activity under Title 23 (which governs highways), would be exempt from any review.

Back to the big picture, one of the three terrible parts of the now-split bill has already passed. Before leaving Washington last week, the House passed HR 3408, the drilling title of the transportation bill that would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, allow drilling off the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, and permit the dirty Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. Led by Florida Representatives who were not thrilled about drilling off of their pristine beaches, 21 Republicans voted against the bill.

Now Speaker Boehner is searching for the votes to pass all the parts of this transportation bill that would deepen our addiction to oil by eliminating funding for biking and walking infrastructure and ending dedicated funding for public transit, a deal that was brokered by President Ronald Reagan in 1982.

Congress is at home this week, hearing from constituents before returning to Washington. As Representatives are considering how they will vote on the worst transportation bill ever, it is critical that they hear from you. Call your Representative today and tell them to oppose HR 7 and prevent the clear-cutting of our bedrock environmental laws.

-- Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Washington Representative for the Sierra Club Green Transportaton Campaign

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