A Transportation Act That's Good for the Environment

N.Y.'s governor says Congress should renew ISTEA as it is

In two counties in suburban Chicago, a "reverse commute" shuttle service has begun that enables urban workers to get to suburban jobs, reducing their need for private automobiles and increasing the economic opportunities available to them. In New York City, the subway and bus systems have been upgraded, and the rail systems that serve millions of commuters on Long Island and in the city's northern suburbs have been made more efficient.

What do these projects have in common? They were funded by the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which is currently up for reauthorization. ISTEA has been recognized by leading environmental and conservation groups as the most important piece of environmental legislation before the 105th Congress.

Under the visionary guidance of its architect, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, ISTEA recognized for the first time the relationship between transportation and environmental quality. It put the nation on course to move from our 20th-century goal of building an interstate highway network to a 21st-century vision of developing innovative and efficient transportation systems that reduce air pollution, encourage sustainable economic growth, and offer expanded outdoor recreation opportunities.

Now, as we stand on the verge of a new century, some would like to end this progress. Yet nationwide, the benefits of ISTEA-funded projects are clear:

* In Los Angeles, ISTEA is funding the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative, a citizen-based planning project designed to improve transportation and community development in eight economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

* In New Haven, Conn., ISTEA is funding a door-to-door "dial a ride" transit service for disabled people in 19 towns with a total population of over 500,000. In 1996 the program provided more than 110,000 rides for disabled passengers, providing social and economic opportunities that otherwise would not be available.

* In Phoenix, ISTEA is funding two pedestrian safety projects in neighborhoods with predominately elderly and poor residents. The projects are providing innovative pedestrian safety measures, such as larger crosswalk signs and center medians.

In western New York, ISTEA is funding a 90-mile greenway that will stretch from the city of Rochester on Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border. This will promote hiking, biking, family oriented outdoor recreation, and tourism - New York's second-largest industry.

* In San Jose, Calif., ISTEA has made possible a new state-of-the-art child-care facility at one of the city's major transportation hubs, providing convenient child care to commuters and saving an estimated 700,000 miles of commuter trips a year.

* In Meridian, Miss., ISTEA is funding the redevelopment of the train station as an intermodal transportation center, providing a predominately low-income population with safe, reliable, and convenient access to buses and trains.

Any reauthorization should build on these successes to ensure we continue to improve air quality. Any reauthorization also should be fair to states like New York that have invested wisely in accessible, reliable, environmentally friendly public transportation networks and to states that have led efforts to work with the private sector to develop cleaner technologies such as zero- or low-emission vehicles.

Unfortunately, several ISTEA reauthorization proposals before Congress would allocate ISTEA funds to states based on gasoline sales. States with a high per capita gasoline consumption would be rewarded at the expense of states that have invested in environmentally sensitive transportation systems. Such a policy would run counter to national energy conservation goals by encouraging increased gasoline use.

New York State, with one-third of the nation's transit riders (and the largest percentage of people who walk to work), has among the lowest per capita gasoline consumption in the nation: 358 gallons per year versus a national average of more than 550 gallons per year. As a result, we would lose $2 billion in transportation money under the proposals.

Congress should renew ISTEA as it currently exists. It is an intelligent program that works to improve our environment, our mass transit systems, and our economy. And certainly roads, bridges, and highways have not been short-changed. In fact, ISTEA has worked because its Transportation Enhancement Program and Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality components have provided dedicated funds for innovative programs.

What's at stake for New York and other states? Continued investment in mass transit, greenways, bikeways, sidewalks, and alternative-fuel vehicles that allow us to achieve our shared goals of improved mobility and environmental quality. In addition, ISTEA has made possible programs that allow gateway cities such as New York, Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Seattle access to the global economy and to develop transportation systems necessary for the 21st century. We've made progress toward these goals. Let's not turn back.

* George E. Pataki is governor of the state of New York.

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