Environmental Protection:

Federal Planning Requirements for Transportation and Air Quality Protection Could Potentially Be More Efficient and Better Linked

GAO-03-581: Published: Apr 28, 2003. Publicly Released: May 8, 2003.

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To protect the public from harmful emissions, transportation planners in areas with poor air must show that their plans will not make it worse. Every time they update their transportation improvement program (TIP) and their 20-year plan--every 2 and 3 years respectively--federal laws and regulations require that they ensure the emissions from their plans will not exceed the mobile source emissions budget. This is known as "demonstrating conformity." Areas that fail to do so generally cannot spend federal funds on new projects until they resolve the problem. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works asked GAO to determine (1) how many areas have failed, why, and what corrective actions they took, and (2) what issues transportation planners had with the conformity process and what solutions are possible.

Since 1997, 56 of the 159 transportation planning areas with air quality problems failed to demonstrate conformity by a required deadline at least once, according to federal agency data, but only five areas had to change their transportation plans as a result. About half of the areas failed because of resource, administrative, or technical problems, such as a lack of time and staff, and resolved the problem in 6 months or less. About one-third of the 253 transportation planners responding to our survey said they anticipate having trouble demonstrating conformity in the future, especially in meeting the more stringent limits on two pollutants resulting from vehicle emissions--ozone and fine particulate matter. A majority of transportation planners who had trouble demonstrating conformity or failed to do so by a deadline said that the required frequency of demonstrations robs them of time and resources to solve other issues, such as growing congestion. The planners support extending the current 3-year time frame between required updates of the 20-year plan, which could also result in less frequent conformity demonstrations. Under this change, areas would still demonstrate conformity of their TIP every 2 years, and could still update and demonstrate conformity on their long-term plans more frequently than required, such as to add new projects or shift funds. These factors could help to ensure that the change would not have a significant impact on the conformity process' role to protect air quality. Transportation planners also noted the difference between their frequent plan updates, which must use the latest emissions model and data (such as the types of vehicles on the road and the number of miles they travel), and air quality plans, with their associated emissions budgets, which are not required to be updated with the current model or data. The transportation planners said this creates conflicts and can result in ineffective changes to an area's transportation plans. Any proposal to require that air quality plans be regularly updated, however, needs to weigh the benefits against the fact that such updates are difficult and costly.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 10, 2005, President Bush signed into law the final version of the transportation reauthorization bill, "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users" or "SAFETEA-LU." Included in this new law is a provision shortening the horizon over which conformity needs to be demonstrated for the long-range transportation plan. Previous to this change, conformity needed to be demonstrated over the entire 20 year horizon of the long-range transportation plan. The current law has allowed this horizon to be shorten, effectively putting it on a timeline more similar to that of the air quality plan with which it is trying to conform. While this is not the same as requiring updates of the state air quality plan, it has a similar outcome of more closely linking the transportation planning and air quality planning processes. Since conformity provisions are part of the Clean Air Act, the Act was amended as needed to allow for this change.

    Recommendation: In order to make the conformity process a more effective and better link between air quality and transportation planning, EPA, in coordination with DOT, comprehensively assess the advantages and disadvantages of establishing a Clean Air Act requirement to periodically update state air quality plans so that they incorporate the same, most current planning data and emissions models used in updates to the TIP and long-term transportation plans.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 10, 2005, President Bush signed into law the final version of the transportation reauthorization bill, "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users" or "SAFETEA-LU." Included in this new law is a provision extending the time frame in between required updates of the long-range transportation plans from 3 years to 4 years. Since conformity provisions are part of the Clean Air Act, the Act was amended as needed to allow for this change.

    Recommendation: In order to make the conformity process a more effective and better link between air quality and transportation planning, the Department of Transportation (DOT), in coordination with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), should consider extending the current 3-year time frame between required updates to the long-range transportation plan and submitting a legislative proposal to change the conformity provisions of the Clean Air Act so that they similarly extend the time frames between required conformity demonstrations for the plan.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 10, 2005, President Bush signed into law the final version of the transportation reauthorization bill, "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users" or "SAFETEA-LU." Included in this new law is a provision extending the time frame in between required updates of the long-range transportation plans from 3 years to 4 years. Since conformity provisions are part of the Clean Air Act, the Act was amended as needed to allow for this change.

    Recommendation: In order to make the conformity process a more effective and better link between air quality and transportation planning, the Department of Transportation (DOT), in coordination with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), should consider extending the current 3-year time frame between required updates to the long-range transportation plan and submitting a legislative proposal to change the conformity provisions of the Clean Air Act so that they similarly extend the time frames between required conformity demonstrations for the plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 10, 2005, President Bush signed into law the final version of the transportation reauthorization bill, "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users" or "SAFETEA-LU." Included in this new law is a provision shortening the horizon over which conformity needs to be demonstrated for the long-range transportation plan. Previous to this change, conformity needed to be demonstrated over the entire 20 year horizon of the long-range transportation plan. The current law has allowed this horizon to be shorten, effectively putting it on a timeline more similar to that of the air quality plan with which it is trying to conform. While this is not the same as requiring updates of the state air quality plan, it has a similar outcome of more closely linking the transportation planning and air quality planning processes. Since conformity provisions are part of the Clean Air Act, the Act was amended as needed to allow for this change.

    Recommendation: In order to make the conformity process a more effective and better link between air quality and transportation planning, EPA, in coordination with DOT, comprehensively assess the advantages and disadvantages of establishing a Clean Air Act requirement to periodically update state air quality plans so that they incorporate the same, most current planning data and emissions models used in updates to the TIP and long-term transportation plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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