DOT’s Highway Emissions Rule Horror Story

Pixabay

As Stephen King’s "It” frightens moviegoers nationwide this Halloween season, I’m reminded how the best-selling author once described the levels of a scary story—“terror on top, horror below it, and lowest of all, the gag reflex of revulsion.”

Terror is exemplified in the beating of Edgar Allen Poe's “Tell-Tale Heart” or the thought of what’s on the doorstep in “The Monkey’s Paw” (which inspired King’s creepy “Pet Sematary“). We readers are unaware of what’s out there, and that’s what is truly scary.

That brings me to the Federal Highway Administration’s latest proposal—repealing a rule that sheds light on greenhouse gas emissions from the many projects contained in local and state transportation plans. This rule was put in place as part of the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) statute, an aptly named law that promises to bring performance management to—and shed a little light on—transportation planning.

Data collection and analysis are transforming a lot of fields, as numerous books and courses about “big data” describe. Thanks to these advances, the 21st century is bringing us not just the quantified self, but—at long last—quantified transportation plans that can help us make critical decisions about whether how much we spend on transportation and what we spend it on works to enhance people’s health, safety and well-being—or at least, not harm them.

Local, state and federal governments spent $320 billion on transportation in 2012. That’s our money, mostly from taxes we pay when we fill up at a gas pump. Do you know where that money goes? Neither do I. But thanks to MAP-21 and a series of rules it charged the U.S. Department of Transportation with writing, all 300 or so metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs, little-known agencies which coordinate plans for cities and counties that comprise metropolitan areas) and 50 state transportation agencies are now required to measure performance based on outcomes we care about (e.g., safety, state-of-good-repair, air pollution) of that massive annual investment.

I want to know what we’re getting for all that spending, and these new performance measures should answer that question. Are our roads going to be safer? Have fewer potholes? And will we have less carbon pollution from transportation causing our climate to change?

Fortunately, these rules push city, county and state bureaucrats not just to account for these outcomes, but to be accountable for improving them by exposing problems and requiring target-setting to start solving them. They are poised to spur dramatic improvements in accountability and transparency in transportation decision-making, as the authors of a new University of Oregon toolkit for practitioners describe.

Imagine, for example, that you notice major construction as you walk down the street. Because of this rule, you should one day be able to pull out your smartphone and click on the “state and MPO plans” app. From there, you could click through to your state, your region and your town and pull up stats that tell you how much the project costs, how long it’ll take to build, and—most importantly—what its benefits will be and how it fits into the overall transportation plan for your area. Does it help reduce pollution, or create it? Improve health and safety, or risk them? Provide access to new opportunities for you and your family, or not?

We have the technology. We have the data. And now, thanks to the MAP-21 rules, policy is driving us toward a future where as taxpayers, we'll know more about the transportation projects our money is funding and what we're getting in return.

But now that may not happen. We've come to the part of the spooky story where the sun goes down or the power goes out, and you can’t see what lies ahead. Politicians running the Federal Highway Administration want to keep us in the dark by rolling back the rule that requires transportation plans to account for the carbon pollution that damages our health and our climate. Not knowing can be scary—and sometimes we need good data to know if, in King’s words, a project deserves our revulsion.

Don’t let the Trump administration reduce transparency. Join me in protesting its wrongheaded attempt to repeal the progress we're making in transportation planning thanks to the MAP-21 law.

Click here to take action by writing and filing comments opposing this scary move.

About the Authors

Deron Lovaas

Director, EEFA, Resilient Communities, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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