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How Will Obama’s Sustainability Team Spend Its $150M? A Preview

Before the U.S. DOT gave some early
clues
as to how the agency would craft its new transit funding
rules
, deputy housing and urban development (HUD) secretary Ron
Sims answered another question that’s been on the minds of transit and
local-planning wonks: How will the Obama administration’s three-agency partnership
for sustainable communities spend its $150 million in funding for this
year?

2008528267.jpgDeputy HUD Secretary Ron Sims (Photo: Seattle
Times
)

Here’s what senior officials are thinking,
Sims told the U.S. Conference of Mayors:

  • $100 million is set aside for grants to local communities that
    present innovative energy-efficiency plans.
  • $40 million is set aside for grants to encourage enactment of
    local zoning and planning reform that makes mixed-use, transit-oriented
    development more feasible.
  • $10 million is set aside for research into "the link between
    transportation and the built environment," Sims said, with an eye to
    creating location-efficient mortgages that take mobility costs into
    account.

After Sims spoke, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Lisa
Jackson told the mayors that the nation’s ongoing economic crisis would
require managing local growth in new ways.

"The boom in commercial and residential real estate drove us, and
it was good … but we now know that there are some impacts to
sustainability from that growth," Jackson said.

"We continue to do the hard work of pulling ourselves out of the
economic decline, and part of that work" is growing more smartly, she
added.

One question Jackson did not address, despite questions from
reporters after her speech: congressional
efforts
to prevent the EPA from taking action against carbon
emissions if Congress fails to pass a climate bill this year.

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Obama Quietly Gets Federal Agencies Involved in Transport Planning

When President Obama signed an executive order in October requiring federal agencies to craft strategies for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, he described the mandate as Washington "lead[ing] by example" on the pollution-reduction front.

Obama_bike.jpg(Photo: AP)

And
that’s true — but the order also includes language telling federal
agencies to get involved in integrating local transportation planning,
with a particular focus on selecting sites for government facilities

that are pedestrian-friendly, near existing employment centers, and
accessible to public transit, and emphasize existing central cities
and, in rural communities, existing or planned town centers;

The
overall goal for government agencies, as Obama’s order put it, should
be to "strengthen the vitality and livability of the communities in
which federal facilities are located." Given that more than 2,200
communities host federally owned or leased property, that edict could unleash a lot of local energy for transit and pedestrian improvements.

The
order also gives federal agencies eight months to craft long-term
sustainability plans focusing on how to implement "strategies and
accommodations for transit, travel, training, and conferencing that
actively support lower-carbon commuting and travel by agency staff."
The White House budget office and Council on Environmental Quality are
charged with vetting each agency’s proposal.

And as each agency devises those emissions-cutting plans, the Obama administration’s push to consider sustainability as a transportation, housing, and environmental issue is given a meaty role in the process.

Read more…

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EPA Air Chief: We Need to Do More to Reduce VMT

Obama administration officials "need to align together" to work on
reducing the nation’s total vehicle miles traveled — work that should
go beyond a pending congressional climate bill — the Environmental
Protection Agency’s (EPA) air-quality chief said today.

GinaMcCarthy.jpgGina McCarthy, EPA’s top air pollution regulator. (Photo: CECE)

Gina McCarthy, EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, acknowledged in a speech at EMBARQ‘s transportation conference that her agency as "less effective" working alone on crafting strategies to cut VMT.

McCarthy
called for federal agencies to work together on a coordinated approach
to transportation policy that makes economic and environmental factors
an essential part of the mix.

"When we say transportation, everybody thinks ‘car’,"
McCarthy said. "That’s a challenge for us as individuals, as a society
– and clearly it’s a challenge for me, as someone who’s supposed to
deliver clean air to breathe."

McCarthy
described lowering VMT as the third leg of the EPA’s transport stool.
The other two, she explained, are encouraging vehicle technology to
reduce emissions and promoting cleaner-burning fuels.

But
that third leg drew the bulk of McCarthy’s attention, as she echoed the
mission statement of the White House’s inter-agency "livable
communities" effort.

"Transportation, above all else, needs to be looked at through a series of complementary
measures, beyond cap-and-trade, in order to drive the types of reductions we need in order
to live in a sustainable world," said McCarthy, a veteran environmental regulator in Connecticut.

And McCarthy appeared to recognize the existing federal
system’s built-in bias toward transportation projects that make life
difficult for air-quality regulators. "The easiest way to spend large
hunks of money is to widen a road," she said. "The worst way to spend
large hunks of money is to widen a road."

As
for the cap-and-trade bill, which faces an uncertain future thanks to
resistance from red-state Senate Democrats, McCarthy warned Congress
that her agency is acting under a Supreme Court mandate to curb greenhouse gases: "Though we support cap-and-trade … EPA is going to do what the law says and what the science says."

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EPA Makes it Official: Emissions Threaten Public Health

Acting under a Supreme Court mandate, the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) ruled today that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public
health and contribute to the harmful environmental effects of climate
change, paving the way for pollution regulations under the Clean Air
Act.

US_regulate_national_auto_emissions.jpg(Photo: TreeHugger)

"Today, EPA announced that greenhouse gases threaten the health and
welfare of the American people," EPA chief Lisa Jackson said at a press conference (audio available here). "We also found that greenhouse gas
emissions from on-road vehicles contribute to that threat."

The
EPA’s ruling, also known in Washington as an "endangerment finding,"
clears the way for the agency to play a role in implementing new auto
fuel-efficiency standards released by the White House in September.

Vehicles
are the No. 2 contributor to total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the
EPA said today, with electricity generation taking the top spot. "U.S.
emissions from on-road vehicles are also greater than the total
greenhouse gas emissions from every other individual nation, with the
exception of China, Russia, and India," the EPA said in a release on
its ruling.

But given that the "endangerment finding" has
been in the works at the EPA since the earliest days of the Obama
administration, what does today’s announcement mean for the future of
climate change legislation?

In the Senate, where a climate bill that would direct hundreds of billions of dollars to clean transportation remains mired in political maneuvering, Democrats aimed to use the EPA ruling to spur their slow process forward.

"The
message to Congress is crystal clear: get moving," Sen. John Kerry
(D-MA), the climate measure’s chief sponsor, said in a statement. Kerry
added:

Read more…

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GOP Senators Protest Evaluating the Climate Impacts of Transport Projects

The 40-year-old National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA),
which requires the federal government to evaluate the environmental
consequences of future projects, is a valuable tool for local residents
and green groups that work to defeat highway expansions — but as Streetsblog L.A. noted earlier this year, NEPA can be an equally valuable tool for opponents of clean transportation projects.

john_barrasso_john_thune_2009_9_30_16_10_56.jpgSen. John Barrasso (R-WY), with a copy of the Senate climate bill. (Photo: AP)

But
the biggest NEPA flashpoint these days is whether the White House
Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) will amend its rules to require
that federally funded projects, including transportation efforts, be
evaluated for their contributions to climate change.

The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the
International Center for Technology Assessment last year filed a
petition with CEQ seeking climate change’s inclusion in future
environmental rules, but CEQ chief Nancy Sutley has remained mum on its
fate. "I won’t tell you what the answer is because we don’t know yet,"
she told GreenWire in March.

In
the meantime, GOP senators are starting to push CEQ towards a denial of
the petition. Sen. Jim Inhofe (OK), the environment committee’s senior
Republican, and Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) wrote to Sutley on Thursday
requesting all documents related to the CEQ’s consideration of adding
climate change to NEPA.

The two senators made their stance
plain, lamenting that the median time required "to
complete environmental impact statements for highway projects in recent
years has been as high as 80 months" and contending that climate change
should not be considered under a "bedrock environmental statute" such
as NEPA.

As of last year, the median time for completion of NEPA review for highway projects had fallen from its high of 80 months in 2002 to 63.5 months. Moreover, the long-term transportation bill
proposed in the House by Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) would set up an
office of expedited project delivery within the U.S. DOT to ensure that
NEPA reviews and other assessments be completed without lengthy delays.

Still,
any progress on resolving NEPA compliance issues is unlikely to deter
Inhofe and Barrasso’s push to deny the pending CEQ petition. As the
battle over the Senate climate bill heats up, opponents of legislative
action are sure to use any strategy they can to prevent the Obama
administration from addressing the issue.

Check out Inhofe and Barrasso’s full letter to the CEQ after the jump.
Read more…

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The New White House Fuel Efficiency Rule: Count the Loopholes

The final fuel-efficiency rule released by the Obama administration
this morning includes what some lobbyists have nicknamed "the German
provision," giving automakers that sell less than 400,000 vehicles in
the U.S. an exemption for 25 percent of their fleet.

462_general_motors_president_and_ceo_fritz_henderson.jpgGM CEO Fritz Henderson’s company can earn fuel-efficiency "credits" for its Chevy Volt. (Photo: IB Times)

"[W]e
recognize that we had to give a little bit," Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) chief Lisa Jackson told reporters today. "The good
news is that, by 2016, we will have caught up, and all
autos sold in this country are going to have to meet the one standard."

But the "German provision" isn’t the only loophole that made it into today’s new rule.

The
Obama administration also would allow car companies to earn credits for
achieving a lower CO2 emissions standard than the government requires
in any specific year.

Those credits could be carried
forward five years or back three years, used to make up for
deficiencies in other vehicle fleets, and even earned this year, ahead
of the new fuel-efficiency standard’s phase-in period, which begins in
2012.

For instance, an automaker that beats the standard
for its cars could use the credits it earns to safely produce more
gas-guzzling trucks. That automaker could earn even more credits for
any electric vehicles it produces, for improving its air-conditioning
systems, or for making more "flex-fuel" autos that can run on
ethanol-blended E85 gas — which is available in fewer than 2,500 gas stations nationwide.

Today’s
rule even allows automakers to trade credits with other manufacturers,
opening the door to a bit of horse-trading between Ford and Honda or
Toyota and General Motors.

The concept of credit trading
is not a new one; the EPA has employed it in other pollution
regulations that were drafted under Clean Air Act authority. Still, the
extent of the credits proposed today unsettled veteran fuel-efficiency
advocate Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign.

California
and 13 other states have gotten the go-ahead to begin imposing stricter
fuel standards on automakers before the national rule starts taking
effect in 2012, Becker said in an interview.

That could
create a perverse incentive for car companies to earn extra credits, he
added, "by shuffling more efficient vehicles into those states, then
com[ing] back
in 2012 and say[ing] we over-complied with the national law by selling
these cleaner cars."

For some domestic automakers, however, the "German provision" may sting most of all. Read more…

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EPA Chief Urges a More Urban Environmentalism to Fight Climate Change

With Congress returning to work next week after a month away from
Washington, a national dialogue long dominated by health care is about
to open to the long-awaited Senate debate on climate change.

epa_lisa_jackson1.jpgEPA administrator Lisa Jackson (Photo: Legal Planet)

But industry-funded efforts to derail legislative action are already receiving undeservedly credible coverage in the mainstream media, and the 6.8 to 1 spending disparity between opponents and backers of the climate bill is leading environmental groups to sound the alarm.

"Big Oil and Dirty Coal, along with allies
like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Newt Gingrich, are ramping up
their efforts to kill this legislation in the Senate," League of
Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski wrote to his members today.

And Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Lisa Jackson made a pitch
of her own on Friday evening to galvanize supporters of a cap on carbon
emissions. Jackson argued that environmentalism should be "sold" more
effectively to low-income urbanites as an issue that deeply affects
their quality of life. 

Over the years, environmentalism has largely been seen as an enclave of
the privileged. The term "environmentalism" brings to mind pristine
wilderness and wide-open landscapes. What doesn’t come to mind is an
apartment building, a city block, or an inner city kid who has trouble
breathing on hot days. Even issues like climate change are distant
concerns for poor and minority citizens (and their advocates) who are
struggling daily for equality in education, health care and economic
opportunity.

The
word "transit" appears nowhere in Jackson’s op-ed, but it’s hard to
think of a more appropriate issue than transportation to connect city
residents with the impacts of climate change.

A study released
last month by Columbia University’s school of public health found that
air pollutants have serious health consequences for children born to
minority families in New York. Moreover, researchers from three
California universities calculated earlier this year that toxic air would exacerbate the impact of heat waves on urban minorities, creating a "climate gap."

The
congressional climate bill could take major strides to close that gap
by investing in transit-oriented development and improving transit
access for lower-income neighborhoods. But expanding environmentalism’s
reach into inner-city communities might be difficult given the Obama
administration’s current hands-off approach to transit’s role in the legislation.

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EPA Asks For Bike To Work Feedback, Inhabitat Gives Away a Bike

Picture_9.png
We get a lot of Greenversations press releases over the transom and most go right to the trash, in no small part because "Greenversations" is one of the more odious portmanteaus a government agency or corporation has yet proffered. Not quite as annoying as the idea that Ray LaHood's multi-modal transportation blog is called the Fast Lane (stay tuned to Streetsblog for more on this), but close.

Today, however, the bloggers over in DC are hoping you'll let them know about your bicycle commuting habits, presumably so they can, umm... count up the total number of commenters and see which ones ride to work and which don't and make a green bar graph, like last year, so that "maybe one of these days" one of their employees at Public Affairs will ride to work?

Anyway, join the "Greenversation" here. And pardon my Monday morning humors.

Picture_10.png

Who Wants A Free Folder (as in bike)?

While we're on the topic of portmanteaus, the good folks over at the much-more-tasteful Inhabitat also want your input on biking, though you might get more than a green bar graph for your efforts. If you can convince them that your current ride is so beat that it's cramping your style and making you a social undesirable, they may gift you a new Strida folding bike, though I'm not sure Xzibit will be dusting the dirt off your shoulder at the end of the show.

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Paradise LOSt (Part I): How Long Will the City Keep Us Stuck in Our Cars?

Editor's note: Today we begin Part I of our occasional series on LOS reform.

Bus_in_traffic.jpgTraffic engineers are reluctant to give exclusive lanes to buses (or bikes) for fear of the impact on cars

The Pseudo-Science of LOS

There's a dirty little secret you should know about San Francisco: It's engineered first and foremost for automobility and will never be able to shed this bias if the traffic engineers are in the driver's seat wielding their traffic analysis tools like bibles. As long as the city continues prioritizing the use of transportation analysis known as Level of Service (LOS), you might as well burn our Transit First policy for warmth.

On the one hand, LOS is a very simple and blunt metric for understanding the speed that vehicles can move about the city. LOS measures the amount of vehicular delay at an intersection, with A through F grades assigned to increased delay. This measurement is taken during the peak 15 minutes of evening rush hour and if an intersection slips from LOS D to LOS E, traffic managers will try to mitigate the impact, which usually means widening the road, shrinking the sidewalks, removing crosswalks, softening turning angles, and adjusting signal timing to speed the movement of vehicles.

LOS_Graph.jpgLOS delay from Highway Capacity Manual
LOS analysis seems like science, free from political or ideological considerations, the perfect traffic-engineering tool to rationalize our cities, but the methodology behind it is far from precise. As Jason Henderson, professor of geography at San Francisco State University, said at a recent presentation, LOS is a very poor tool methodologically. In the early years of its development, the "science" was merely traffic engineers assuming what made motorists uncomfortable. He cited the fact that LOS F used to represent a delay of more than 60 seconds, but that in the 2000 Highway Capacity Manual it was revised to 80 seconds. And motorist behavior studies since have shown that inconvenience with delay can depend on numerous factors and differ dramatically between drivers.

Yet the result of relying on this poor methodology to shape the growth of cities has a profound affect on the politics of human mobility, privileging the movement of vehicles before the movement of anything else. Quite simply, LOS analysis has given us Phoenix and Atlanta, congestion and ever-longer commutes, and a whole host of ills that accompany reliance on the inefficient use of street space for our cars.

"I've been doing transit analyses in California for 20 years," said Jeffrey Tumlin, principal of Nelson Nygaard, a transportation and land use consulting firm. "In my practice the single greatest promoter of sprawl and the single greatest obstacle to transit oriented development (TOD) and infill development is the transportation analysis conventions under CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, LOS."

Read more...