July 22, 2015

The Misleading Response to Our New Grinding to a Halt Report

Matt Letourneau

This morning, the Energy Institute released a new report detailing the impacts of EPA’s proposed ozone regulations on transportation projects in the Washington, D.C. region.   We were joined by leading advocates such as AAA Mid Atlantic, Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. 

The response from environmental groups was swift and aggressive:  deny the problem.  Nothing to see here; move on.

However, what they’re ignoring is one of the two ways by which EPA can (and does) withhold funds from certain projects: conformity lapses.   EPA has used this tool before—70 times, in fact (according to the Congressional Research Service).  The most notable example was Atlanta, which was under a lapse for over two years in which funding for transportation projects totaling $700 million was withheld. 

Now, the other option is for EPA to impose sanctions, which are indeed historically rare and only triggered after a longer period of noncompliance. But, conformity lapses are just as disruptive. They can be put into place immediately, and the result is that federal dollars are withheld from many planned projects.  As a result, federal permits and approvals for projects in the development stage cannot proceed.

Even when the lapse is resolved, critical projects may still suffer—local governments are often forced to divert funds from planned projects to others that EPA prefers, regardless of congestion and need. 

Will this really be a problem under EPA’s proposed new standard?  Consider that EPA admits that 40% of proposed reductions will have to come from “unknown sources”—i.e., things that haven’t been invented yet.  Given the vast improvements that have already been made, and the levels of “background ozone” that are not produced locally, there simply are not ways for localities to find more and more reductions.  That’s why we think that it is very likely that conformity lapses will become more and more common.

But don’t just take our word for it—our concerns are being echoed by groups such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National League of Cities, National Association of Counties, and National Association of Regional Councils

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials & Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations warn that just the requirement for hundreds of counties to go through the conformity plan process will cause a slowdown in project delivery and is an “impossible task” in some areas.  And the list goes on.

It’s no wonder that some advocacy groups want our report dismissed—the truth about the Obama Administration’s proposed ozone regulations hurts.