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Environmentalists Don’t Like Concessions in Transportation Bill

Lost in the shuffle yesterday amid the health care ruling and the contempt citation for Eric Holder was the deal reached on a minibus package for freezing student loan interest rates, extending surface transportation funding for two years, and reauthorizing for five years the flood insurance program. That package will get House and Senate votes by this afternoon, just beating key deadlines on all three measures, and allowing Congress to go home for the July 4th recess.

I went over most of the key elements of the bills yesterday. The most objectionable of the three for progressives appears to be the transportation bill, where many salutary pieces were excised at the very end in order to reach an agreement.

In the bargaining that led up to an agreement on the package earlier this week, House Republicans gave up their demands that the bill require approval of the contentious Keystone XL oil pipeline and block federal regulation of toxic waste generated by coal-fired power plants. Democrats gave ground on environmental protections and biking, pedestrian and safety programs […]

The bill consolidates transportation programs, reducing the number by two-thirds. It also revamps rules on environmental studies of the potential effects of highway projects, with a goal of cutting in half the time it takes to complete construction. And the measure contains an array of safety initiatives, including requirements that would make it more likely that passengers would survive a tour bus crash.

But Democrats and Republicans also found plenty to criticize in the transportation deal.

“At least it’s not as bad as our Republican colleagues wanted,” complained Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who has champion bike and pedestrian programs. “But make no mistake, it is not a bill to be proud of.”

Here’s some more about the cuts to conservation funds, which has environmentalists angry. The Land and Water Conservation Trust fund was gutted of funding entirely. That’s a loss of $700 million annually for wilderness and water projects. In a statement the Wilderness Society said, “The investments that would have been made would have improved access for hunters and anglers, provide new places for families to enjoy the outdoors, and protect valuable wild places and historical locations.”

Halving the environmental review process is also of concern. Environmental reviews are often used by NIMBY types to stop worthwhile projects, but that’s a minority of what gets done. Now rushed environmental reviews may fail to capture the real impacts of new roads or infrastructure projects.

We should see passage of the package, moving to the President’s desk, today.

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David Dayen

David Dayen