Environmental Groups Point to Transit Funding as Weak Spot in Democratic Stimulus

January 16, 2009 8:00 a.m.

The sheer complexity of the $825 billion economic stimulus bill unveiled in the House yesterday means that it may take some time for stakeholders in the effort to digest the Democrats’ spending choices. But the environmental community was on the ball right away, shooting out statements that were sadly little-noticed in the flood of news.

Green advocates mostly like the stimulus, particularly its investment in modernizing the nation’s electricity grid and remodeling buildings to promote energy efficiency. But the transportation portion of the bill left several major environmental groups very underwhelmed — and rightly so.

Friends of the Earth observed
that the $30 billion Democrats are dedicating to the crumbling national highway system may end up being used on new construction while existing roads remain in decay.

“It is particularly disappointing to see that, unlike highway funds, public transportation and passenger rail funds have been cut below the levels suggested by the House Transportation Committee, limiting job creation in these areas,” the group’s president, Brent Blackwelder, said in a statement.

The National Resources Defense Council hailed the bill in general but added quickly that it “needs more to improve our country’s transportation and water infrastructure.” NRDC also expressed disappointment that the transit funding undercut the proposal offered by Jim Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House transportation committee.

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“The transportation component of the stimulus package under-funds mass transit in deference to highways and bridges, which receive $30 billion compared to $10 billion for public transit and rail,” NRDC legislative director Karen Wayland said in a statement.

Even the Environmental Defense Fund, considered a relatively centrist player in the phalanx of Washington green groups, had a bone to pick with the transit part of the stimulus plan. Fewer than half of the 50 states have publicly released their priority transportation projects, according to the EDF, making transparency from the nation’s governors a crucial missing piece.

“States generally have flexibility to use highway funds to “fix-it-first” — repair existing bridges and roads — or to rush through new highway expansion that might otherwise fail to meet basic environmental needs,” Michael Replogle, the EDF’s transportation director, said in a statement. “It’s time to shine a light on those priorities.”

Will other House Democrats make a stand for more green transportation cash when the stimulus heads through the committee process next week? We’ll be watching.

Late Update: Blogger Adam Terando made a good catch in the video of yesterday’s organizing hearing of the House transportation panel. Looks like there’s dissent a-brewin’ among Chairman Oberstar’s troops about the short-changing of highway and mass transit projects in the bill. Also, the Journal has more on the hubbub.

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