States, MPOs Warn of ‘Dramatic’ Rise in Restricted Areas Under EPA Ozone Proposal

AASHTO Journal, 20 March 2015

AASHTO and the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations told the EPA that the agency’s proposal to tighten ozone standards would sharply increase the number of counties and states that would be subject to restrictions that could curb transportation projects.

They said the rule change could make hundreds more counties subject to costly administrative burdens and slowdowns in transportation projects.

The EPA, in a Dec. 17 Federal Register notice, said it is proposing to reduce the level of ozone it permits under National Ambient Air Quality Standards to 70 or 65 parts per billion, from the current 75.

But on behalf of state departments of transportation and local MPOs, the associations in a formal comment letter said “the proposed rule will dramatically expand the number of areas subject to transportation conformity requirements, including many areas in which local governments have limited, if any, ability to reduce ozone levels through changes in transportation plans and projects.”

Currently, AASHTO and AMPO wrote, 227 counties around the country are designated as nonattainment areas for the 75 ppb standard. But they said that number would swell to 358 counties under a 70 ppb rule, and jump to 558 under the 65 ppb standard.

“We urge EPA to consider the consequences for transportation conformity requirements when setting and implementing any new NAAQS for ozone,” the groups said.

AASHTO and AMPO warned that “for states and MPOs, the change in the NAAQS will have significant practical implications, including administrative burdens and slowdown in project delivery.”

They also pointed to an analysis from the EPA that if all current regulations are implemented, including new vehicle fuel efficiency and emission standards, that few counties would be outside the attainment goals of the proposed ozone rule within 10 years.

“In other words, the vast majority of counties that will be designated as non-attainment under the NPRM will come into compliance with the proposed standards without any additional action being taken – and yet they still would need to undertake a time-consuming and burdensome transportation conformity process,” the associations said.

Meanwhile, they said, the proposed rule would impose on many more counties and states a rigorous compliance process for their transportation plans and projects.

“The transportation conformity process will impose a difficult – if not impossible – task in places where background [ozone] levels are so high that there is little that can be done through transportation planning to reduce ambient ozone,” AASHTO and AMPO said. “And in many other counties, transportation conformity will impose burdens without corresponding benefits, because the areas would meet the new standards without any additional action being taken.”

To address the imbalance between burdens and benefits, AASHTO and AMPO recommended that if the EPA goes ahead with the rule change, it “use all regulatory flexibilities available within existing law to defer the imposition of transportation conformity requirements on areas that EPA’s own modeling shows will come into compliance with the NAAQS without any additional actions being taken.”

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