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Clear the Fog From Road Plan : Impact report would clarify Bush's proposals

February 17, 1991

Since 1969, federal law has required governments to analyze the consequences of going ahead with--or abandoning--public projects that would have a significant impact on the environment.

An environmental impact statement seems to us the logical next step for President Bush's proposal to spend nearly $90 billion building, rebuilding or repairing 150,000 miles of roads and bridges over five years.

For one thing, scarcely any project could affect the air and land more than a national highway system like that proposed in this package.

For another, analysis might produce a more precise definition of the strategy behind the plan, other than the vague goal of enhancing mobility.

Analysts also should question whether the highway plan would violate the federal Clean Air Act that Bush signed last year.

Parts of the plan are splendid, particularly those designed to shore up or replace thousands of bridges that engineers already have declared to be on the edge of collapse.

But others raise serious questions, none more troubling than a plan to spend $16 billion to expand urban mass transportation systems. It turns out that new funds for these new systems match almost exactly the amount to be cut from subsidies that now keep old systems running.

Bush's plan came under attack from both environmental activists and state highway officials almost immediately.

States generally liked features that would give them more authority to decide which highway projects to spend money on. What they did not like is that more of whatever they spend would come from state revenues.

Bush's new highway network, for example, would include the 43,000-mile interstate highway system. It was approved in the 1950s, and parts of it--California's Santa Ana Freeway, for example--are worn to the point of requiring major reconstruction. Under current law, the federal government picks up as much as 90% of interstate highway costs. The Bush plan would cut that to 75%. For work on so-called "primary" roads, most of which are vital state arteries, the federal contribution would be as low as 60%.

Environmental groups oppose letting highways have the lion's share of new money. Arguing that energy conservation is generally neglected at the Bush White House, they also attacked a formula that would tip new highway spending toward states that used the most gasoline.

For Southern California, an important question is whether the plan's bias toward highways goes against the grain of the 1990 version of the federal air quality law. The new law restates, and puts some enforcement teeth into, a requirement that transportation systems should help, not hinder, clean-air plans. And highways are certainly less desirable from that point of view than, say, rail transit.

Is the President's plan to cut the federal share of highway costs a subtle approach to cleaner air, the White House knowing full well that California is in bad financial shape? Probably not, but it is one more question an environmental impact statement would clear up.

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