Air Date: Week of May 29, 1998
Congress has just appropriated the largest amount of money in history for public works; nearly $220 billion dollars over the next six years. The cash will go for highways, bridges, mass transit systems, and bike and pedestrian paths. Steve Curwood spoke to Roy Kienitz (key-nits) who is executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a group that lobbied for provisions that help to fight sprawl and save energy. He explains that in many cases, local governments will decide if they want more highways or more public transit.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Congress has just appropriated the largest amount of money in history for public works; nearly $220 billion dollars over the next six years. The cash will go for highways, bridges, mass transit systems, and bike and pedestrian paths. Roy Kienitz is executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a group that lobbied for provisions that help fight sprawl and save energy. He calls the measure a victory, because it upholds the vision of a law passed by Congress 7 years ago. That law transformed the way government spends money on transportation.
KIENITZ: In 1991, we had a real victory in taking a federal transportation program that was really a highway building program, that gave the money out to state government and said, "Build highways with this money, and if you don't build highways, give it back." And that's now been turned into a largely flexible program in which we give money to states and local governments and say, "This is to solve your transportation problems. Do whatever you want with it."
CURWOOD: Do you think the highway lobby is as thrilled as you are about the new highway and transportation bill?
KIENITZ: Well, it's interesting. This is something in which there's been something in it for everyone. They are thrilled because the amount of money is going up, something like 25% to 30% And this is money that gets spent by giving it to them to do highway projects, and so that's something they're excited about. We're excited because we feel like we're getting a fair shake out of that. And the truth of the matter is, $20 billion a year is too much to spend if you spend it badly, and $25 billion a year can easily be spent well.
CURWOOD: Now, this new transportation measure calls for about a 43% increase in transportation spending for this year. I think it's a total of $217 billion over the next 6 years. Now, can you give us a rough breakdown of what portions are earmarked for new highways, what for transit, what is marked for flexible spending?
KIENITZ: Of the approximately $200 billion that's going to be spent, about 18% or 19% goes for public transit, about 25% goes specifically for fixing existing highways and bridges, about 9% or 10% goes for safety and environmental considerations, things like that, and then the large bulk of the remainder, which is probably about 40% or 45% of the money, is flexible at state and local option for any kind of transportation investment. And that ranges from bike paths, to sidewalks, to train stations, to buses, to light rail, to fixing existing roads and bridges, or building new.
CURWOOD: What happens now with the new transportation legislation? There's always this tension between the public transit crowd and the highway crowd. Is this now going to be fought out on the state and local level all across the country?
KIENITZ: That's exactly right. Everyone's just going to have to duke it out, in each state and each metropolitan area around the country. There's a huge chunk of this money that can be used for any and all purposes,and so someone's gonna decide what those purposes are.
CURWOOD: If someone listening to us right now wants a bike path built in their town, or would like to see more bus service come into their neighborhood, how would they go about getting their hands onto some of this cash?
KIENITZ: The good news is that the opportunity for input has never been greater. And, no longer can the bureaucrats use the excuse of "Well, I would love to help you with that, but the people in Washington won't let me." That used to be true; it is no longer true. The bad news is, of course, like anything else, if you want to get something done, you have to get involved. And people have to contact their local city council, contact the mayor's office, get a local neighborhood group together, go to your member of the state legislature, or the county commission, or whatever it is. I mean, all of these different government bodies now have a role, in most places, in deciding how money gets spent. Going to all these different people with an idea can actually result in some money being spent. For example, before the really revolutionary change that occurred in 1991, we were spending maybe $5 or $10 million dollars a year, of federal money on things like bike paths. Last year, that was $220 million. I mean, it's been an amazing change in the amount of money going into the kind of projects that people are most interested in.
CURWOOD: But, Roy Kienitz, I'm wondering what kind of effect do you expect this increased spending will have on how Americans get around?
KIENITZ: Well, one of the real advances we've seen in this bill, is the huge increase in demand for public transit; in particular for an investment in extensions of existing transit service, rather than just sort of maintenance funding to keep on doing what you're doing. In 1991, there were about 30 new transit systems, or extensions to existing transit systems, that were authorized in the bill that was enacted in that year. This time around, there are over 100. That is the potentially the biggest day-to-day effect on the way people travel. The enormous number of communities in which transit will really become a realistic option, where it has not been.
CURWOOD: Roy Kienitz is executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, in Washington, DC. Thanks so much for joining us today.
KIENITZ: Thanks for having me.
CURWOOD: Not everyone is happy with the new transportation act. Congress attached a controversial rider onto the bill in the final days of negotiations. The amendment will stall efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to control haze in the Grand Canyon, generated by the smokestacks of upwind industries. The EPA's final ruling on regional haze in national parks, mandated by the Clean Air Act, is already overdue. Now, this rider will delay its implementation for up to 9 years.
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