Transportation Reform in the South

SELC's transportation reform work envisions more efficient, less polluting ways to move goods and people across the South.

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New climate change guidelines make for better decision-making More »

Today the Obama Administration released guidelines on how federal agencies should consider climate change when assessing proposed projects.

The guidelines, which apply to all federal projects reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act, will impact decisions involving everything from transportation projects to power plants, pipelines, and oil drilling. Until now federal agencies have been inconsistent in how they considered climate change in project reviews, often ignoring it completely.

When reviewing any new project, the agencies must consider both the direct and indirect impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. For a proposed new highway, for example, federal agencies will need to consider the greenhouse gas impacts of building the highway, as well as the emissions that would result from additional sprawl or traffic. Perhaps most significantly in informing decision-making, agencies are now required to quantify and compare the climate changing effect of different alternatives, allowing the public an easy way to see which alternatives will have the least impact.

“This guidance will allow us to better tackle the challenges of climate change,” said Kym Hunter, attorney in SELC's Chapel Hill office. “But it also provides greater transparency and more information to help make decisions about where our limited federal dollars are spent. These guidelines give all taxpayers a better accounting of the impacts and costs of federal projects.”

SELC has commented on the adminstration's draft guidelines multiple times as they have been in development the past eight years, particularly asking for a greater focus on transportation. In the Southeast, transportation is now the leading contributor to climate change-causing pollution.

In addition to transportation, the guidelines have significant implications for coastal spending and development. The guidance specifically refers to transportation projects on coastal barrier islands, such as proposed bridges in the Outer Banks, and directs agencies to consider the consequences of rebuilding with sea level rise and more intense storms. It also discusses how chemical facilities near the coast could have increased risk of spills or leakages, putting local communities at risk.

While draft versions of the guidelines had set a greenhouse gas emissions threshold to trigger consideration—something SELC urged against—the final version removed that and now requires climate change analysis for all projects.

“We know Southeastern coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, so this is a huge step forward for better decision making in our region,” said Hunter. “Just asking the question of how each project will affect and be affected by climate change could lead to better decisions about transportation, coastal development, and energy production.”

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The South's asphalt-centered transportation approach contributes to nearly every serious environmental problem we face today--from air and water pollution, to loss of rural lands and natural areas, to climate change. SELC is pursuing an alternative approach through a region-wide effort to promote cleaner transportation options and to advance policies to curb sprawl and protect the special places in the South that we cherish.

Halting the Most Destructive Highway Projects

State transportation departments in the South have too often built massive, destructive highways and bypasses that do little to improve our long-term mobility, safety, economy, or quality of life. Instead of reducing congestion, these costly new projects often subsidize development farther out into the countryside, causing "planned sprawl" and quickly filling up with traffic by essentially forcing people to drive everywhere for everything.  Sprawling development, coupled with a failure to invest in alternatives to auto and truck travel, has made the South's per capita driving distances and tailpipe pollution levels some of the worst in the nation.

SELC is challenging the most ill-conceived and expensive highway proposals in the South. These projects would increase air and water pollution, destroy valuable natural areas and farmland, worsen the region's carbon footprint, and pave the way for yet more far-flung development.  Instead, we are advocating for low impact, more effective solutions to transportation problems, such as targeted improvements to existing highways.

SELC's Vision for Transportation

In addition to advancing alternatives to damaging projects, SELC is promoting fundamental policy changes at the federal, state, and local levels, including

• More transportation choices: We are spurring investment in cleaner and more efficient alternatives to driving, such as transit, intercity passenger rail, and freight rail.
• Fix-it-first: We are urging our states and metro areas to repair thousands of roads and bridges and to improve the efficiency of existing roads, rather than to pour money into new highways and bypasses.
• Linking transportation and land use: We are promoting development patterns that curb sprawl, reduce the cost for public services, and promote public health by providing choices for getting to work, shopping centers, school and other destinations.

If we change our approach to transportation, as the South continues to grow we can foster vibrant economic growth and communities with a range of mobility and living options while protecting our health and our environment.