Eliminate Air Quality Standards for Regions that Meet Standard

Today, I want to offer the fifth of my recommendations to reform U.S. surface transportation policy. My colleague David Hartgen and I recommend that the Clean Air Act of 1990 be amended in two ways. First, eliminate the conformity requirement for regions meeting clean air standards. Second, review regions not in conformity every 10 years, after new census data has been released.

The Clean Air Act of 1990 (CAA) requires each region currently in non-attainment with air quality standards to submit plans demonstrating that it will be in compliance in the future. For transportation, each region must show that its’ Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) “conforms” to the State Implementation Plan for air quality improvement. In the DOT Rules (40 CFR 93), this means that the region’s TIP projects will, as a whole, not increase future emissions above the no-build level or above budgeted emissions.

The present rule requires even very small regions to conduct extensive forecasting of air pollution if they were ever in non-attainment of air quality standards. But virtually all of the future reduction in regional air pollution will be caused by cleaner vehicles, not by local transportation actions. Recent reviews of the air quality plans of 48 regions found that every region predicted a 30-50% reduction in vehicle emissions over 20 years even as travel increased, and that the TIP would reduce emissions by only 0.25-0.5% — way too small to be significant. Further, the conformity rule requires reduction of emissions (measured in tons of pollutant) but the CAA standards are for concentrations (measured in parts per billion in air). Therefore, there is no direct connection between the rule’s emissions analysis and the CAA’s concentration requirements.

Very few regions have been cited for non-conforming plans from among the literally hundreds submitted. A 2003 GAO analysis found that only five regions out of 200+ revised their plans based on conformity, and that frequent updating was administratively burdensome. No region has actually lost federal funds as a result of non-conformity. For major projects environmental impact statement analysis already requires additional air quality analysis, so requiring regions to do it twice is duplicative and burdensome. In this way the rule has become an administrative hurdle that duplicates later needed work, does not improve local air quality, and requires huge administrative effort to ensure certification for federal funds.

Regions — particularly the 400+ smaller ones — will have significant relief of administrative burden. Assuming that the conformity analysis costs $20,000 per certification, administrative time, and administration costs, this change would save nearly $8M that could be better spent on effective transportation planning. Air quality would not degrade as a result of this change.

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