EPA's Browner Admits Anti-Roads Activism Wrong, Promises Reform

July 23, 1999
By Peter Samuel

EPA's Browner Admits Anti-Roads Activism Wrong, Promises Reform

Originally published in issue 41 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Jul 1999.

Page:11

Subjects:EPA USEPA funding ACTIVISTS STPP

Agencies:STPP EPA TPP USEPA

Locations:WASHINGTON DC

USEPA Administrator Carol Browner says the longstanding Transportation Partners Program (TPP), under which the federal government’s environmental agency has been coordinating and funding anti-road groups around the country “will be replaced with a more balanced program.” Her decision to end, or substantially reform, the controversial anti-roads program was announced in a letter to Senator Robert Byrd (Dem WV) dated June 16 but which has only just been made public by the agency. A letter from Robert Wolcott acting deputy asst admin at EPA to Congr. David McIntosh (Rep IN) dated July 13 says: “The Administrator asked me to respond to your letter and to inform you that the Transportation Partners Program has been discontinued.”

In its place the EPA is establishing a new Transportation Environment Network (TEN) in which explicitly pro-roads groups and professional organizations will be welcome.

Browner tells Byrd in the 2-page letter that she had initiated a “thorough review of the (EPA’s) relationship with its partners, the funding of the TransAct website, and our process to fund and provide oversight of the grant recipients’ activities.” This followed a series of tough criticisms and questions about the program made by Sen Byrd in an independent agencies appropriations subcommittee hearing Apr 29 (see History following).

Browner’s letter

Browner continued in the June 16 letter to Byrd: “As a result of the review. I am making a number of important changes that will substantially improve the program’s accountability and balance, broaden the group of funded participants, and lead to more effective policies to harmonize environmental and transportation policy. I believe you will find these changes address your concerns.”

“First the (TPP) will be replaced with a more balanced program. As you know in the past we have funded nine Principal (repeatedly misspelled ‘le’) Partners who in turn work with over 340 state and local governments, businesses, and community and environmental groups. So as to prevent any appearance of endorsing the activities of these 340 organizations, EPA will no longer fund the nine Principal Partners to maintain a network of these organizations. I agree with the concerns you raised regarding EPA funding of the TransAct website. At our request the Surface Transp Policy Project (STPP) has agreed to renegotiate our existing cooperative agreement so that no EPA funds are used to support TransAct.”

“Secondly we are eliminating the non-competitive grant process used to fund the nine Principal Partners. It will be replaced with a competitive Request for Proposals (RFP), open to all transportation and environmental organizations. Proposals will be subject to external peer review, and grant recipients will need to demonstrate the involvement of state or local government officials. Moreover the agency has a rigorous post-award monitoring process, which for these projects will include quarterly reports and meetings, annual site visits, and a thorough review of all publications prepared under the assistance agreements.

“Lastly EPA will initiate a dialog with a representative group of transportation and environmental stakeholders, which will be called the Transportation Environment Network (TEN). TEN will provide a forum for members to review, on an ongoing basis, projects funded under the RFP, as well as to provide an opportunity to discuss and undertake cooperative activities to help reduce pollution from vehicles.”

Browner says that AASHTO (the state DOTs lobby), AHUA (highway users), the Inst of Transp Engineers and other groups will be invited to join TEN. She ends her letter saying: “Please be assured that I recognize the vital role transp investments play for local mobility and economic development needs... I look forward to working with you... to meet our shared commitment to protect public health and the environment.”

In three pages of responses to Congr. David McIntosh’s questions, Browner concedes some of the criticisms of TPP, especially that its program was excessively focused on opposing roads. She says the replacement program the Transportation Environment Network “is embodying a broader approach” and she cites the invitation to AASHTO, AHUA and ITE to participate. EPA’s legal basis for funding anti-roads activist groups was questioned.

Statutory authority

Browner says the statutory authority for TPP is contained in sec.103 of the Clean Air Act, which states in (b) (3) that it has the authority to make grants to public or private non-profit groups and to individuals to collect and disseminate basic data on air quality “and other information pertaining to air pollution and the prevention and control thereof.”

So it all depends on the definition of “other information”?

This answer by Browner is quite at odds with the rationale for TPP stated in its own official documents where “international commitments” to reduce greenhouse gases are mentioned. We criticized EPA/TPP for citing “international commitments” when the Administration has not submitted the Kyoto treaty for Senate ratification. International commitments do not seem to exist in the absence of a ratified treaty.

The last annual report of EPA/TPP makes no mention of the Clean Air Act authority. It states: “This unique program was formed out of Pres Clinton and VP Gore’ s Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP). The CCAP describes the US response to the Earth Summit, a gathering in Rio de Janeiro...The Transportation Partners Program is responsible for 44% of the transp sector vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) reductions called for in the CCAP. To meet this goal, the program aims to reduce (VMT by) 20 billion nationally in the year 2000. Such a reduction constitutes 0.8% of the VMT baseline outlined in the CCAP. EPA headquarters staff who work on the program are referred to as TP Central. (Right out of Orwell - TRnl) The program’s mission is to reduce the growth in VMT through the promotion of projects that provide alternatives to single occupancy vehicle (SOV) travel...”

In another answer Browner conceded the anti-auto basis of TPP saying that “EPA evaluated the success of the program by measuring carbon emissions reductions resulting from reduced vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) as the primary outcome performance measures....” She said that EPA “reported on” reduction of pollutants that resulted from reduced VMT.

Smoking gun

McIntosh asked for details of road projects that grant recipients had intervened against, the position of STPP, of EPA and the federal funding at stake in each project. The ‘smoking gun’ in the scandal was “The Directory of Transp Reform Resources” jointly authored by the STPP and EPA/TPP, a 194 page manual listing state by state the road projects that the different constituents of TPP were working against. Browner’s letter avoids mention of the directory and says that its office of general counsel is “in the process of identifying information contained in EPA files which is responsive to your request.”

Included in the documents provided to the Congress is a spreadsheet showing USEPA grants under the TPP. Largest recipient has been Environmental Defense Fund $1,485,000, followed by STPP $1,480,000, Local Government Commission $1,192,000, Local Environmental Initiatives USA $1,076,000, Renew America $585,000, Association for Commuter Transp/Transp Demand Management Institute $565,000, Bicycle Federation of America $465,000, Public Technology $395,000, Center for Clean Air Policy $225,000. Funding ran over 6 years from FY94 through FY99.

EDF supported a number of positive pro-roads policies especially the use of road pricing to fund and manage extra highway capacity in the Bay area and in Washington DC. Telephone logs, letters, records of meetings, the TransAct website and publications under TPP show that STPP was at the center of using US taxpayer money to organize opposition to road projects at the local level. STPP was also the major source for the totally one-sided content of the program, and its constant reiteration of catchy half-truths and anti-road/anti-auto slogans, and its generally propagandistic tone.

HISTORY: This newsletter broke the story that set off a rumbling of indignation in the roads community, that generated the fuss on Capitol Hill, that led to Administrator Browner’s review of her Transp Partners Program, and her promised reform. TRnl#29 July 98, and TR#33 Nov 98 devoted over 10 pages to our investigations of EPA/TPP via regular journalistic inquiries, website searches, freedom of information filings, and some valuable leaks from unnamable whistleblower allies. It was revealed first here that the EPA had been coordinating and funding a widespread campaign of virulent anti-roads propaganda via supposedly independent citizen groups, sponsoring and training them in anti-roads activism, conducting monthly telephone conference calls with anti-roads activist leaders to coordinate activity, and that it was paying for the leading anti-roads website (transact.org). If this wasn’t enough a high level task force at EPA had approved an intensified and better staffed and funded program of intervention at the local government level to prevent roads projects being put into the mix of alternates in the planning and public consultation process. The new policy was to work to abort road projects before birth! We were the first to publicize the details of this internal EPA report.

We laid out the totally one-sided anti-auto/anti-roads emphasis of the EPA and EPA-supported materials, pointed out falsehoods in their representation of the issues – in particular their repeated assertions that new road lanage “only generates traffic” that it is the major factor promoting ‘sprawl’, that auto emissions are getting rapidly worse, and road expansion does nothing to relieve congestion. We focused most heavily on the EPA’s heavy financial support and close working relationship with the environmentalist organizations’ anti-roads Washington lobby Surface Transportation Policy Project. The EPA covered the costs of the STPP website and there were prominent links with the www.epa.gov/tp website of EPA/TPP. We published the hourly pay rates EPA was paying STPP staffers. We discovered another similar fake website with the non-government suffix .org which purported to be a citizen network but which was in fact a fully controlled EPA site as well.

AHUA presentation

The American Highway Users Alliance asked us to give a presentation on all this Feb 2 at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City VA at a special meeting of their board of directors and other invited guests. (We were offered and accepted a $500 fee). There we showed slides of the source materials showing close collaboration between EPA and activist groups on blocking road projects, including toll road projects, and the memo outlining EPA’s plans to intensify intervention at the local government level to try and kill road improvements before they gained momentum via the MIS/EIS process. TRIP, ARTBA and AGC, other highway lobby groups showed great interest too, and mentioned our materials in faxes to members and in their newsletters. A number of highway industry lobbyists began to take up the TPP issue, and at least one state secretary of transp, we know, circulated many copies of our critique of EPA/TPP. By March we were receiving a constant flow of requests by telephone for copies of the newsletter’s coverage of EPA/TPP, and our copy machine and printer here rarely cooled down.

Dan Murphy Washington correspondent for INVESTORS BUSINESS DAILY, and commentator Randal O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute (www.ti.org), wrote their own solid pieces on the issue, discovering new angles to the scandal, turning up additional information, and adding to the momentum. Congressmen began to stir. Especially infuriated at the EPA was Robert Byrd, veteran WV senator and a Democrat. He has worked hard to improve the economy of his mountainous state by pushing major highway projects there, and was outraged to find that a government agency was funding his opponents. We don’t know who gave him a copy of our newsletter but we understand he “hit the roof” when he read it and asked staff to check it out and follow through hard – or words to that effect. We supplied the Senate Appropr Committee with a thick heap of supporting documents after we heard about Sen Byrd’s interest. Rep David McIntosh (Rep) chair of the house subcommittee covering the EPA was most active on the House side. He ordered inquiries into EPA/TPP. He expressed doubt about the EPA’s legal authority for the TPP, and noted that the grants to activist groups were irregular in that instead of being advertised and made on the basis of competitive bids, they were simply handed out to EPA friends and allies. McIntosh fired off a very tough list of questions to Administrator Browner.

Meanwhile Apr 29 at a senate sub-committee hearing on the EPA represented by Browner herself, Byrd took TPP apart, and in the wake of that she initiated the 6-week review which led to the decision to discontinue, or reconstitute, the program.

EDITORIAL: In case you hadn’t noticed, this newletter provides reportage with attitude. One attitude we developed after moving into this niche of reporting roads was that the major Washington anti-roads lobby Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) were a bunch of jerks, the very worst kind of Washington DC political operators. Important operators though, with a major role in shaping federal transport policy and legislation and a central role in a misguided national movement to deny Americans the infrastructure they need for their continued mobility. Decided they were jerks, frankly, when they wouldn’t take or answer polite phone calls – about ten of them over the course of a year – inquiring about the basis for their latest statements. They wouldn’t explain themselves, substantiate their claims, or demonstrate even the most elementary respect for reason. After a period of watching them and of trying to deal with them, we decided these people care not a jot for facts, for data, for logic... indeed for reality. Zealots, they have their policy (Stop Roads) and the only thing of interest to them is any scrap of dissociated data or of half-baked notions that can be used to support that policy. This is contempt for intellect and for reason.

And talk about a far-fetched ridiculous policy. An extreme policy. This is America after all – land of prosperity, immigration, opportunity and of freedom. Immigration means more people and growing cities, that can only grow around roads. Prosperity generates the income to buy new housing and some space around it, and to buy high quality mobility; and freedom and opportunity demand mobility – personal mobility. And this is an age of dispersed and movable workplaces, multiple worker households, flextime, telecommuting in which the door-to-door, go-when-you’re-ready automobile simply has no serious competition. For all their tactical and propagandistic smarts, these STPP guys live intellectually in a cloud cuckoo land of unreality in thinking they can turn back the tide of automobility in America.

They’re a drag

Yet they ARE capable of being a drag on the system – of slowing down needed road improvements, making each road enhancement more of a struggle for its sponsors, more expensive to develop, to permit and to build. They do delay life-saving and congestion relieving projects that will eventually be built, and meantime these jerks diminish the quality of people’s lives and see people unnecessarily maimed and killed in traffic accidents, who would live on better roads. They are also capable of contributing to a lot of governmental waste, of directing taxpayer money into black holes...

Well in a free society everyone has a right to advocate any nutty idea with their own resources. But they don’t have the right to do surreptitious sweetheart deals with likeminded bureaucrats, to coopt the prestige of the US government to their purposes, or to divert taxpayer money down their own holes... so we went for them. We hope we did that with a modicum of fairness. Despite being “ag’in em” we tried to report everything about them accurately. We did not exaggerate, so far as we know. We tried not to, in part because your credibility suffers, but also because it is misleading to your customers (readers) and just plain wrong to misrepresent facts.

We thought frankly that they’d all just hunker down and ride out whatever little turbulence we were able to generate with an expose of the STPP-EPA/TPP deal. Carol Browner’s EPA probably remains as firmly committed as ever to misguided STPP-like notions of trying to limit automobility in America by choking off road improvements. But she and STPP ran into one serious and formidable old pol in Senator Robert Byrd and into another serious and formidable young pol in Cong David McIntosh. Those two and their staffs deserve the credit for cutting off taxpayer subsidies to the zealots. But let’s give Browner the benefit of the doubt. When she was forced by Sen Byrd to review the detail of her agency’s TP program she had the courage and integrity to stand up and acknowledge there was something wrong, and to take the initiative to kill an indefensible relationship with a lobby group. American government is healthier for that, and Browner deserves a measure of respect even from her opponents for doing the right thing.

LATE ADDITION: Allen Greenberg, director of the newly formed Transp Environment Network (TEN) at EPA responded to our request for comment on a draft of the report above. We thank him for picking up some errors which we corrected above. Greenberg interestingly defends the Transp Partners Program (TPP), so much so that one wonders why his boss Administrator Carol Browner got rid of it, and how far he is committed to conducting a different operation from TPP. He claims of TPP: “Information disseminated through the program includes peer reviewed research products that provide critical information to decision makers at the state and local level. This includes new research on the relationships between road capacity and induced travel...”

Comment: The curious use of the present tense “includes” suggests this was lifted from a defense of TPP produced before Administrator Browner killed the program. In all the many TPP materials I gathered I never saw a single peer-reviewed study, but there might have been somesuch that I missed. That would not alter the fact that the great bulk of TPP material was quite one-sided sloganizing, pamphleteering and propaganda against auto/road travel, not professional studies conveying useful information. STPP, the principal collaborator and benefactor in TPP, produced only activist anti-roads propaganda, stuff without any acknowledgment of the benefits of automobiles and roads, or of their central role in providing Americans with mobility.

Greenberg writes: “Your story also incorrectly states that the process of environmental streamlining (as mandated in TEA-21) is an EPA attempt to have local governments kill road projects...”

Comment: The EPA’s official TEA21 Workgroup Report “New Approaches to Integrate Environment and Transp Policy through TEA21 Implementation” (8/26/98) states: “EPA can use this as an opportunity to change the transp planning process by building on our involvement in plan development to ensure that demand management strategies with broad multi-media benefits are addressed at key points in the planning process.”(p4) The document notes that “Currently most environmental reviews occur after (road) projects have a political constituency behind them, making substantial changes very difficult.” (p6) This is clearly a reference to the need to go against road projects early in the planning process at the local level. The document calls for “raising our constituencies awareness of the new opportunities” (p7), these constituencies clearly being the anti-roads groups. In the context of “streamlining” the document mentions the need to use it to establish “better transportation policies and strategies that reduce reliance on new roads and low density development and reducing the need for stakeholder involvement at later stages of implementation.” (p8) The end “Summary of Action Items” includes: “Increase efforts to get involved earlier in regional transp planning and project selection.” The report called for an extra 31.5 FTE personnel in order to staff the intensified effort.

This strategy document is saying as clearly as its authors are capable: “Get in there at the local MPO level, and kill those road projects early.”

This “New Approaches...” document was the product of a formally constituted workgroup and is signed by 15 senior EPA officials (5 of whom are regional administrators). The covering memo says that it was “closely coordinated by staff and senior management from across the agency including (7 offices) and (5) regions.” I was told by the director of TPP that “New Approaches” was adopted as official Agency policy on transportation for TEA21 without amendment.

“New Approaches” states that more forceful EPA policies against roads and single occupant travel (in favor of “alternatives”) are necessary because of “very rapid increases in driving” and because “vehicle-caused pollution doubles periodically in most metropolitan areas” (p4). These statements, which are laid down as the basis for the whole EPA program are false. Driving as measured by vehicle-miles-traveled has been growing an average 3.4% the past five years, about the rate of growth of the economy, and trending down. That is hardly “very rapid.”

As for vehicle-caused pollution doubling periodically the EPA’s own “National Air Pollution Emissions Trends” publication reports highway vehicles total emissions 1980-1995: CO reduced 25%, NOx reduced 12%, VOCs reduced 32%, PM-10 reduced 25%, SO2 reduced 42%, lead down 97%. You can choose different periods and you get different numbers but the sign is almost invariably a minus. The trend in total vehicle-produced pollution is heavily down. ‘Halves periodically’ would have been closer to the truth than doubles.

So the whole EPA program for attacking autos/roads following TEA21 is based on a Goebbelesque lie. Officials who sign off on such rubbish in a major strategy report can hardly be expected to curb propaganda and nonsense in their hirelings.

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