Panel Says Work Must Consider Air Pollution

Fri December 28, 2007 - West Edition

SACRAMENTO (AP) State authorities said Nov. 24 that highway, rail and port improvements funded through a voter-approved transportation bond must not worsen air pollution.

The 8-1 vote by the California Transportation Commission marked a reversal by the panel and the Schwarzenegger administration in deciding how to spend $2 billion in bond funds.

The nine-member panel also refused a request by Southern California lawmakers to steer the vast majority of the money to projects there.

The commission’s new guidelines will shape how and where to spend about 10 percent of the $20 billion transportation bond voters approved last year to fix roads, clear freeway bottlenecks and help reduce transportation-related air pollution.

“We all want to work together to ensure we haven’t damaged the environment,” commission chairman James Ghielmetti said after the vote.

Environmental groups, local air districts and residents of port communities worried the panel would weaken the air quality standards included in the transportation bond. They feared new construction could make the state’s smoggy skies even worse without any pollution controls.

Their concern was prompted by a commission decision in November to eliminate air quality as part of the state’s initial review of projects to be funded from the transportation bond.

“We’re asking you ensure that all communities get protected,” said Cynthia Marvin, a transportation expert at the state Air Resources Board.

The commission and state Business, Transportation and Housing Secretary Dale Bonner had argued that the state had no real way to gauge the effect of new construction on air quality when they are first proposed.

Commissioners, who are appointed by Schwarzenegger, reversed their decision after more than a week of closed-door negotiations led by Bonner and more than three hours of public testimony Nov. 24.

“It wasn’t that we wanted to lower the standard,” Ghielmetti said. “The fear was it was going to get in the way of moving projects through quickly.”

The guidelines adopted will provide a uniform method for screening construction projects to determine their effects on local and regional air quality.

For example, a rail line proposal that would send containers through the Sierra Nevada might receive bond money if it reduces the number of freight trucks using Interstate 80 and employs technology to reduce emissions from trains.

In a snub to Southern California lawmakers, commissioners said 60 percent of the money targeted for trade improvements would go to the five county Los Angeles-Inland Empire region.

State Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and 34 other Assembly members had asked the commission to steer at least 75 percent of the trade money to the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura. They said the five-county region handles 85 percent of the container traffic coming in and out of the state and is home to 82 percent of Californians.

The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex is the nation’s busiest.

The proposal before you shortchanges the neediest areas of the state when it comes to goods movement,” said Nunez, D-Los Angeles, “This in my view is not only unacceptable, but if the guidelines are adopted, I guarantee you we’re going to have a problem.”

Nunez said he would change the formula the commission adopted Nov. 24 in the state budget next year.

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