When Congress created the New Starts fund for new rail transit projects in 1991, it required that the grants be awarded to projects that were “cost effective.” This same requirement was applied to the small starts fund, for transit projects costing less than $250 million, which Congress created in 2003. The Obama administration, however, is proposing to eliminate the cost-effectiveness test in favor of “livability,” “multi-modalism,” and “environmental justice.”
The Antiplanner’s comments on the proposed rules argue that these criteria are not authorized by law and, moreover, are vague and open to such broad interpretation that they are effectively meaningless. My comments focused mainly on livability and multi-modalism as I hadn’t ever heard of transit projects being justified based on environmental justice.
A recent series of articles in the Washington Times, however, reviews the administration’s infatuation with environmental justice in detail. As the first article in the series notes, seventeen federal agencies recently signed a “memorandum of understanding” agreeing to integrate environmental justice into all of their “programs, policies, and activities.”
But what does “environmental justice” mean? The second article shows that it can mean preventing a factory from opening in a low-income, minority neighborhood because that factory “might” emit toxic chemicals. (After later opening in a white neighborhood, the factory never emitted any toxic chemicals.) Environmental justice can also mean halting programs to relieve congestion in low-income neighborhoods because congestion relief might lead people to drive more and thus increase air pollution (never mind that relieving congestion reduces air pollution because cars pollute more in stop-and-go traffic).
The third article in the series shows how the environmental-justice mantra is used to halt a variety of projects based on scant evidence. “The marriage of environmentalism and civil rights has created a perfect storm of regulatory power that has the potential to control or kill any project anywhere in the United States,” says the writer.
The Times is often over-the-top when it comes to Obama. But a look at the “environmental justice toolkit,” developed with federal funding by the Environmental Justice in Transportation Project at Morgan State University, reveals that proponents of this policy focus on air pollution. Yet for the most part the problem of automotive air pollution has been solved. The average car on the road today emits less than 7 percent as much pollution per mile as the average car in 1970, and new cars emit far less, so the air gets cleaner with every new car purchased. This obsession with a problem that is either gone or fast disappearing is unrealistic.
Meanwhile, the construction of rail transit lines to middle-class neighborhoods has led to cutbacks in bus service to minority neighborhoods in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, and several other cities. A major goal of building streetcars, which the Obama administration wants to fund, is to gentrify neighborhoods, pushing low-income families elsewhere to make room for yuppies who want to live in a mixed-use urban environment. How environmentally just is that? It is clear that the administration’s use of this concept is arbitrary and capricious.