November/December 1994, p.6-7

Redistributing the Wealth: Using the Clean Air Act and ISTEA to Create Social Equity
by Scott Bernstein, Center for Neighborhood Technology

The Auto-Free Press usually focuses on projects, campaigns, and issues which are local to the Metropolitan Tri-State region. Occasionally, however, we like to step back and take a broader view. This piece, reprinted with permission from the journal of the American Planning Association, provides a national perspective on transportation, federal legislation, and social equity issues.

While much has been written about the interplay between the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA) and the Inter-modal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), little attention has been paid to how these laws can be tools for assessing and addressing the inequities of current development policies in the US. Both laws require a broader consideration of transportation policy and investment choices in light of their environmental consequences for communities. The Clean Air Act puts teeth in the requirement that regions with the worst air quality diversify transportation choices, by requiring them to commit to a 15 percent reduction in urban smog by 1996. The plans for these reductions must be filed by November 15,1994. Failure to comply will result in a series of federal sanctions, including, appropriately, the loss of highway funding. ISTEA provides unprecedented new funding with greater flexibility for shifting funds to alternative modes, and goes further to require the consideration of transportation's land use and social implications. These two laws are linked by a requirement that regions assure conformity between their transportation plans under ISTEA and their state agencies' plans for reducing air quality problems in Metropolitan areas under the Clean Air Act.

Why Focus on Metropolitan Areas?
More than half the U.S. population now lives in metropolitan areas of more than one million people. Since 1940, at least half that growth has occurred in the suburbs. In Chicago and virtually every other metropolitan region, these shifts were facilitated, encouraged, and subsidized by public policies, which in turn were promoted and backed by various development interests. Post-World War II federal domestic policies encouraged the development of new areas while providing little incentive for maintaining existing areas. In effect, these included:

  • Investing in new highways and later in new airport facilities, rather than in mass transit, intercity rail, and city roads.
  • Extending water and sewer mains and electric transmission lines at low or no cost to rural areas.
  • Making cheap credit available in developing areas while ignoring or even encouraging credit discrimination (redlining) against existing areas.
  • Neglecting to counteract the successful conspiracy to buy up and abandon much of the existing inner-city trolley systems and interurban electric railroads.
  • Subsuming national policies on materials use and the environment within a dual context of support for extractive industries and expanded foreign trade.

Post-War Road Construction
From 1945 to 1960, the portion of gross national product devoted to public works shot up from 1.0 to 3.3 percent It then maintained a level of 2.3 percent even throughout the inflationary 1960's and now stands at 1.5 percent In the transportation sector, the vast majority of these resources were pumped into new road construction. From 1958 to 1989, the federal government spent $213 billion on highways, but only $23 billion on railroads and transit Throughout the nation, population losses in central cities - and hence losses in tax revenue and demand for services - have kept pace with population growth on outlying areas. Meanwhile, our focus on road investment has led to severe air quality problems in 98 of our largest urban areas.

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 took the first step towards acknowledging that America's transportation problems don't begin and end with mobility. The combination of the CAM with ISTEA provides an opportunity to achieve the goals of redistributing transportation investment where it is most needed to combat environmental and community degradation with a series of carrots and sticks: flexible funding for a variety of modes of transportation, a new emphasis on environmental and community planning, new funds dedicated specifically to reducing vehicle dependence, substantial new funding to meet transportation needs in metropolitan areas, and a higher priority for maintenance of highways and transit systems over new construction. In addition, both laws provide for substantially greater public participation in transportation planning. Finally ISTEA provides for the establishment of a Bureau of Transportation Statistics to aid in both planning and in public access to information.

Challenges and Opportunities
These two laws carry several important implications for planners and planning agencies. First, new tools are needed to prove the assumptions stated in transportation and air qualify plans. For example, federal agencies cooperated with an environmental group, the 1000 Friends of Oregon, to develop LUTRAQ, an integrated and interactive set of land use, transportation and air-quality programs. The Lake Michigan Ozone Study (LMOS) of the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium has developed sophisticated "photochemical grid" models to attribute the sources, transport, and destination of urban ozone to help insure that each state and metropolitan planning organization in the Lake Michigan region has the best available baseline against which to propose sensible alternatives.

Second, it is possible for the first time to place a value directly on environmental and economic contributions made not only by shifting transportation modes (for example, from cars to mass transit, bicycling or walking), but also by reducing the demand for transportation. Thus, development oriented transit bicycles and pedestrians can all be seen to have value in the struggle to reverse vehicle trip growth. Planners can now analyze the overall effects of zoning that stresses end uses and amenities, and urban growth boundaries such as those in Oregon and Washington. Equitable access to meaningful jobs through housing and community development strategies has become critical in the fight for clean air.

Community Based Planning
Third, community design and land-use patterning have become necessary to realizing the required vision. Community organizations in Chicago suggested that the shrinkage in ridership on the Lake Street elevated line (now called the Green Line) could be reversed by doing transit-oriented design around each station. The Chicago Transit Authority found this compelling enough to commit to rebuilding the line with "economic development zones" around each station. CMAQ funds are expected to be committed soon to community-based planning processes. Similar efforts are underway with community organizations and agencies in the Bay Area. And NIPC's Diversified Regional Centers concept has the potential of providing the same type of planning framework and benefits for suburban areas served by mass transit.

Fourth, additions to mass-transit capacity take on new urgency and value. A partnership between the Regional Transportation Authority and local economic development organizations in Chicago added rail capacity to bring commuters from job-poor to job-rich communities. A recent evaluation of the project showed a fare box recovery ration of 101 percent Specialized bus and van services have been operated for more than a decade in cities like Atlanta and Chicago. And the projected $150 billion expenditure in the 30-year Los Angeles-area transportation plan has provoked a lively debate over the equity effects of spending money on fixed rail versus flexible route buses.

Citizen Participation
Fifth, the mandated role of citizen advocacy and participation suggests the possibility of new, upfront partnerships to avoid necessary conflict In the Chesapeake Bay region, the Washington Regional Network has engaged an impressive array of citizen advocates and transportation agencies working together toward a consensus vision of that region's development future. Similar coalitions in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia are well under way, and more recent projects in Georgia and Missouri suggest a new generation of planning alliances may well be on the horizon.

Finally, legal and regulatory tools that may not usually be regarded as the stuff of transportation or air-quality planning provide value as well. There are incentives in the Community Reinvestment Act for lenders to reinvest responsibly in their primary service territories, as well as civil rights legislation that mandates equitable distribution of housing, job benefits, and public investment The new least-cost and integrated resource planning requirements of state public utility commissions may also present models for least-cost transportation planning.

All of these aid in the challenge of developing our regions sensibly. They suggest that the large and politically sustainable coalition needed to achieve the vision outlined in ISTEA may indeed exist.

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