WASHINGTON — A small change in the cap for ground-level ozone emissions could lead to wide-scale noncompliance of environmental rules, and a major business group says that could be flipped into the federal government yanking funding commitments for highway and transit projects. At a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event here July 22, representatives of transportation groups and related industries used metropolitan Washington as a case study on how an Environmental Protection Agency final rule expected in October could lead the federal government to rapidly curtail spending on transportation projects. The Chamber and its allies argued that proposed changes in EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone give the agency the power to cancel federal contributions to highway transportation projects if a county or city is significantly beyond the proposal for a new cap of 65 parts per billion, down from the current ceiling of 75 ppb. Ozone is a molecule made of three oxygen atoms. “This is unfair after the pain regional motorists have gone through,” said Lon Anderson, managing director of government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. State governments in Maryland and Virginia recently decided to embark on significant transportation improvement campaigns, and the new rule means federal contributions are in danger. “We’ve made huge progress on emissions, but stricter regulations could stop the progress we’re making to ease congestion,” Anderson said.
The regulatory change could prove to be counterproductive, said Richard Parsons, vice chairman of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance. When a completed highway project allows cars and trucks to move quickly, it helps reduce emissions because cars and trucks emit less if they don’t have to sit in traffic and idle.
“This regulation doesn’t consider congestion’s effect on air pollution. It’s a nonsensical sanction that makes things worse,” Parsons said. EPA said the Chamber’s scenario is not likely to happen, and has never happened to date. “Violating a standard, or being designated as nonattainment for a standard, does not jeopardize a community’s highway or transit funds,” EPA said in an e-mail statement. “Withholding these funds is an extraordinary measure that would only be considered if a state repeatedly failed to take actions required by the Clean Air Act. If an area acts in good faith by developing and implementing an initial plan to attain the standard, but does not attain by its attainment date, highway and transit funds will not be withheld,” the agency said. ‘GRINDING TO A HALT:’ EPA report On the other side of the Potomac River, David Birtwhistle, CEO of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, said his area has enjoyed a significant drop in “code red” air pollution warnings to about three per year from 17 a year in the 1980s. Constructing a new Wilson Bridge across the Potomac helped speed traffic and reduce emissions, he said, and now he wants to proceed with work on Interstate 66 and does not want federal funding held up. The Virginia Transportation Department has said it wants to use a public-private partnership, or P3, to improve I-66. AAA’s Anderson said he worries that an EPA threat to federal transportation funding will make private investors less likely to participate in P3s.
By Jonathan S. ReiskinAssociate News Editor
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