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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Transportation Dollar Boom

Air Date: Week of March 20, 1998

Capitol Hill veterans say an election year is the perfect time to approve big transportation bills. That used to mean more highway construction and less open spaces. But, that may be changing. The Senate recently passed a 214- billion dollar transportation package predicated on the belief that in economic boom years, environmental stewardship and development can go hand in hand. Jim Jones reports from Washington, DC.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Capitol Hill veterans say an election year is the perfect time to approve a big transportation bill. It used to be that meant more highway construction and less open space, but that may be changing. The Senate recently passed a $214 billion transportation package. It's predicated on the belief that in economic boom years, environmental stewardship and development can go hand in hand. James Jones reports.

JONES: The Senate bill provides $41 billion for mass transit, $1.3 billion to fight traffic congestion in cities with the dirtiest air, and over $600 million to fund projects like new bike paths and park improvements. Spending in each of these areas would go up by over a third. There's also new money to restore wetlands destroyed by earlier Federal highway projects, and new tax incentives for mass transit riders. James Corless, spokesman for the Surface Transportation Policy Project, says the Senate vote signals a new set of priorities.

CORLESS: And one of those national priorities is now environmental protection, in with an understanding of community preservation and enhancement, and alternatives in how we move around our cities and towns.

JONES: Mr. Corless also points out what's not in the Senate bill. Amendments that would have allowed money for environmental projects to be spent on road building and proposals to delay strict new EPA clean air regulations for smog and soot failed in the Senate. Activists say a strong environmental stance is essential as Congress pours more money into the entire transportation system. again, James Corless.

CORLESS: If we don't get a handle on how this money is spent, we could see continuing sprawl, continuing development over farm land, worsening traffic congestion and air pollution.

JONES: Environmental activists believe the House, like the Senate, will respond to these concerns. The House Transportation Committee has already crafted a bill that has the support of environmental groups.

BOEHLERT: It is going to be the most environmentally friendly, comprehensive transportation bill that the republic has ever seen.

JONES: Representative Sherry Boehlert, a moderate Republican from New York, authored the environment section of the House Committee bill. He says his colleagues have changed since 1995 when they voted to weaken several environmental laws.

BOEHLERT: I've tried to pull the committee over more toward being more sensitive to the environment. And to the credit of the committee, they have demonstrated that they have listened and they have learned and they are very sensitive now to the environment.

JONES: But that doesn't mean the environment will get a free ride in the House. Some members think states should be able to shift funds meant for air quality programs into road building. And the controversial clean air rules may come up again, but Representative Boehlert thinks most of his colleagues are now ready to accept those rules.

BOEHLERT: I think more and more people are looking at that and saying it makes sense, we're going to go forward. I know I was an early supporter, and I have enough of my Republican colleagues who are of like mind, combined with our Democrat colleagues, so that we can protect those standards against any assault.

JONES: Democrats say with more money available this year for transportation, it's much easier for conservative Republicans to balance road building and environmental concerns. In fact, the committee's ranking Democrat, Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota, says bipartisan support for the bill is so strong that he's not concerned about anti-environment amendments.

OBERSTAR: When that bill does come to the House floor we will stand united, and when our committee is together, we prevail.

JONES: House and Senate leaders hope to have a bill ready for the President to sign by May first. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones in Washington.

 

 

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