oversight

Environmental Protection: Federal Planning Requirements for Transportation and Air Quality Protection Could Potentially Be More Efficient and Better Linked

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-04-28.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

             United States General Accounting Office

GAO          Report to Congressional Requesters




April 2003
             ENVIRONMENTAL
             PROTECTION
             Federal Planning
             Requirements for
             Transportation and
             Air Quality Protection
             Could Potentially Be
             More Efficient and
             Better Linked




GAO-03-581
                                               April 2003


                                               ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

                                               Federal Planning Requirements for
Highlights of GAO-03-581, a report to
Congressional Requesters                       Transportation and Air Quality Protection
                                               Could Potentially Be More Efficient and
                                               Better Linked

To protect the public from harmful             Since 1997, 56 of the 159 transportation planning areas with air quality problems
emissions, transportation planners             failed to demonstrate conformity by a required deadline at least once, according
in areas with poor air must show               to federal agency data, but only five areas had to change their transportation
that their plans will not make it              plans as a result. About half of the areas failed because of resource,
worse. Every time they update their
                                               administrative, or technical problems, such as a lack of time and staff, and
transportation improvement
program (TIP) and their 20-year                resolved the problem in 6 months or less. About one-third of the 253
plan—every 2 and 3 years                       transportation planners responding to our survey said they anticipate having
respectively—federal laws and                  trouble demonstrating conformity in the future, especially in meeting the more
regulations require that they ensure           stringent limits on two pollutants resulting from vehicle emissions—ozone and
the emissions from their plans will            fine particulate matter.
not exceed the mobile source
emissions budget. This is known as             A majority of transportation planners who had trouble demonstrating
“demonstrating conformity.” Areas              conformity or failed to do so by a deadline said that the required frequency of
that fail to do so generally cannot            demonstrations robs them of time and resources to solve other issues, such as
spend federal funds on new                     growing congestion. The planners support extending the current 3-year time
projects until they resolve the
                                               frame between required updates of the 20-year plan, which could also result in
problem. The Committee asked
GAO to determine (1) how many                  less frequent conformity demonstrations. Under this change, areas would still
areas have failed, why, and what               demonstrate conformity of their TIP every 2 years, and could still update and
corrective actions they took, and              demonstrate conformity on their long-term plans more frequently than required,
(2) what issues transportation                 such as to add new projects or shift funds. These factors could help to ensure
planners had with the conformity               that the change would not have a significant impact on the conformity process’
process and what solutions are                 role to protect air quality.
possible.
                                               Transportation planners also noted the difference between their frequent plan
                                               updates, which must use the latest emissions model and data (such as the types
To help improve the conformity                 of vehicles on the road and the number of miles they travel), and air quality
process, GAO recommends that the               plans, with their associated emissions budgets, which are not required to be
relevant federal agencies (1)                  updated with the current model or data. The transportation planners said this
consider extending the 3-year time             creates conflicts and can result in ineffective changes to an area’s transportation
frame between required                         plans. Any proposal to require that air quality plans be regularly updated,
transportation plan updates and                however, needs to weigh the benefits against the fact that such updates are
asking the Congress to amend the               difficult and costly.
Clean Air Act to change the
conformity rules to match, and (2)
                                               Length of Conformity Lapses, 1997-2002
assess the advantages and
disadvantages of statutorily
requiring that the emissions
budgets in air quality plans be
regularly updated with new travel
data and emissions models. DOT
and EPA generally agreed with
these recommendations.
www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-581.

To view the full report, including the scope
and methodology, click on the link above.
For more information, contact John
Stephenson at (202) 512-3841.
Contents


Letter                                                                                                    1
               Results in Brief                                                                          3
               Background                                                                                6
               Few Areas Have Needed to Change Transportation Plans to
                 Resolve a Conformity Lapse, but More May Need to Do So in the
                 Future to Meet New Standards                                                            13
               Frequency of Demonstrating Conformity and Inconsistent
                 Requirements for Updating Transportation and Air Quality Plans
                 Cause Problems                                                                          21
               Conclusions                                                                               27
               Recommendations for Executive Action                                                      28
               Agency Comments and Our Evaluation                                                        29

Appendix I     Objectives, Scope, and Methodology                                                        31



Appendix II    Survey of Local Transportation Planners                                                   35



Appendix III   Survey of State Air Quality Planners                                                      54



Figures
               Figure 1: Counties in Nonattainment or Maintenance Status for at
                        Least One Criteria Pollutant                                                      8
               Figure 2: Process for Forecasting Future Travel Demand                                    10
               Figure 3: Length of Conformity Lapses, 1997-2002                                          14
               Figure 4: Primary Causes of Conformity Lapses, 1997-2002                                  15
               Figure 5: Primary Solutions to Conformity Lapses, 1997-2002                               17
               Figure 6: Counties Expected to Violate the New Ozone Standard
                        for the First Time                                                               19



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               Page i                                             GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
United States General Accounting Office
Washington, DC 20548




                                   April 28, 2003

                                   The Honorable James M. Jeffords
                                   Ranking Minority Member,
                                   Committee on Environment and Public Works
                                   United States Senate

                                   The Honorable Joseph I. Lieberman
                                   United States Senate

                                   As the nation has grown, so has its dependence on cars as its primary
                                   mode of transportation. Over the past 30 years, the volume of miles
                                   traveled on the nation’s roadways in these vehicles has increased four
                                   times faster than the total population. Although they contribute to the
                                   increased mobility of the population, these vehicles also burn fuel that
                                   emits harmful pollutants into the air, thereby posing risks to public health
                                   and the environment. Clean Air Act provisions, as well as technological
                                   advances with cleaner vehicles and fuels, have helped to significantly curb
                                   these emissions over this same time period. But because of continued
                                   growth and increased travel, states and localities must continue to monitor
                                   and control these emissions to achieve or preserve clean air.

                                   In an effort to protect public health from such emissions, the
                                   Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set ambient air quality
                                   standards, or limits, on the amount of certain harmful pollutants, such as
                                   ozone, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter, which can be present in
                                   the air. The Clean Air Act requires the states to develop air quality
                                   protection plans to implement, maintain, and enforce these standards.
                                   These plans define the amount of these pollutants that four main sources
                                   can emit—surface transportation, such as cars, trucks, and buses (on-road
                                   mobile sources); other vehicles, such as construction equipment, train
                                   engines, and airplanes (non-road mobile sources); industry, such as
                                   factories and power plants (point sources); and business, such as dry
                                   cleaners or bakeries (area sources). For the on-road mobile source sector,
                                   this limit on emissions is known as a “motor vehicle emissions budget.”

                                   Transportation planners in areas where emissions exceed the standards or
                                   did so in the past are required by the Clean Air Act to consider these
                                   budgets when developing their two primary documents outlining their
                                   future transportation network. The first is a long-range plan that specifies
                                   a 20-year vision for a metropolitan area’s transportation system; the


                                   Page 1                                     GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
second is a short-range transportation improvement program (TIP) that
specifies the priority projects to be implemented in the next 3 years in
more detail. These transportation planners are required to update their
plans at least once every 3 years, and their TIPs at least once every 2 years.
Each time they conduct these updates, federal laws and regulations
require the planners to demonstrate that the estimated emissions from the
planned transportation system, including projects in the plan or TIP, will
not exceed the emissions budgets in the state air quality plans. This is
known as “demonstrating conformity.”1 The planners must submit their
demonstrations to the Department of Transportation (DOT), which is
responsible for ensuring it conforms to the air quality plan, in coordination
with EPA. If DOT determines that an area has not passed its conformity
demonstration by specified deadlines, the area enters into what is known
as a “lapse.” During a lapse, an area generally can only spend federal
transportation funds on certain projects, such as safety, mass transit, and
air quality projects, until it resolves the problem and can demonstrate
conformity.

The ease or difficulty with which transportation planners complete the
conformity process, especially in light of upcoming changes to air quality
standards, has prompted interest in reviewing this process. EPA will soon
implement two new and more stringent standards, or limits, on ozone and
fine particulate matter—two substances prevalent in or created by vehicle
emissions—that will subject some areas of the country to the conformity
process for the first time. In addition, as some of the nation’s developed
areas balance the pressures of a growing population, urban sprawl, and
congested roadways, areas already having to demonstrate conformity may
find compliance an even greater challenge.

As the Congress reauthorizes the nation’s major surface transportation
law, it is interested in knowing how well the conformity process is
working and what effect, if any, it is having on an area’s transportation
plan, projects, and federal funding. A number of transportation
stakeholders have studied various pieces of the conformity process and
have offered reauthorization proposals to make changes to it. You asked
us to focus on three such proposals that, among other things, would
streamline the transportation planning process and in turn affect the


1
 DOT conformity program managers noted that a number of additional factors, other than
updating transportation plans and TIPs, such as the approval of a new or revised motor
vehicle emissions budget or certain other changes to air quality plans, can also trigger a
required conformity demonstration.




Page 2                                             GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                   required steps in the conformity process. Two of the proposals would
                   extend the time between required updates of the plan and TIP, thereby
                   extending the time between the associated conformity demonstrations,
                   respectively, and the third would combine these two plans into a single
                   planning document, subject to a single conformity demonstration.

                   More specifically, you asked us to determine (1) how many areas of the
                   country have had their conformity status lapse at least once since 1997
                   (the earliest date for which data are available), why, and what corrective
                   actions were taken, and (2) what issues planners have encountered during
                   the conformity process and the extent to which each of the proposed
                   changes to the transportation planning process will address these issues.

                   In responding to the first objective, we reviewed the reliability of all
                   available data from EPA and DOT on areas that have experienced a
                   conformity lapse. EPA began collecting these data on a regular basis in
                   1997 and DOT in 1999. In responding to the second objective, we
                   conducted a Web-based survey of all 341 local transportation planning
                   organizations nationwide, commonly known as Metropolitan Planning
                   Organizations, and all air quality planning agencies in the 50 states plus the
                   District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. We obtained responses from 253
                   transportation planning organizations (74 percent) and 45 state air quality
                   agencies (86 percent). See appendixes I, II, and III for more details on our
                   scope and methodology and for the results of each survey. We conducted
                   our review from August 2002 through April 2003 in accordance with
                   generally accepted government auditing standards.


                   Over the past 6 years, 56 of the 159 transportation planning areas with air
Results in Brief   quality problems (35 percent) have experienced at least one conformity
                   lapse, although few had to change their transportation plans to resolve the
                   lapse. Areas lapsed in 26 cases because transportation planners lacked the
                   time and resources to complete the conformity process by the required
                   deadlines, or because they experienced administrative or technical
                   problems. Areas lapsed in 18 cases because they had difficulty designing a
                   transportation plan that would control future emissions enough to meet
                   their budget, but in 6 of these cases, the difficulty was with the
                   requirements of the conformity process itself and not with the amount of
                   emissions that would be generated by the projects in their plan. In the
                   remaining cases, areas lapsed for a variety of other reasons, such as not
                   having an EPA-approved state air quality plan with an emissions budget in
                   time for the conformity demonstration. While some took longer, about 65
                   percent of all lapses took 6 months or less to correct. Most areas


                   Page 3                                      GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
addressed their lapse by correcting administrative or technical issues, or
taking the needed time to catch up with their workload and complete the
conformity process. Another 11 areas recalculated the emissions budget to
resolve the lapse, and only 5 areas needed to revise their transportation
plans. About one-third of the 253 transportation planners nationwide
responding to our survey anticipate having difficulty demonstrating
conformity in the future, however, especially under the new air quality
standards for ozone and particulate matter. For example, EPA estimates
that about 50 areas of the country that will not meet the revised standards
will have to demonstrate conformity for the first time. EPA and DOT have
taken some preliminary steps to help prepare these new areas, but some
are concerned, for example, about having the resources and staff with the
necessary technical skills to complete the conformity process.

About two-thirds of the 118 transportation planners responding to our
survey who currently demonstrate conformity reported that the frequency
with which they must do so limits the time and funds available to address
other important transportation challenges, such as alleviating congestion
and ensuring highway safety. All three of the proposed changes to the
transportation planning process that stakeholders have offered could
result in less frequent conformity demonstrations, addressing the planners’
concerns. Nearly three-quarters of the transportation planners favored
extending the frequency between updates of the long-range plan and most
preferred at least once every 5 years, rather than once every 3 years as
currently required for areas with air quality problems. If the requirement to
demonstrate conformity of the plan were also revised accordingly, this
could result in less frequent demonstrations. Forty-five percent of the
planners favored extending the frequency between updates of the TIP, and
30 percent favored combining the plan and TIP into a single document.2
Seventeen state air quality planners responding to our survey also
supported the most favored proposal to extend updates of the plan. But
when asked if the proposal could jeopardize their ability to meet air
quality standards, 16 air quality planners said they thought that it could.
However, in responding to this question, the air quality planners were not
asked to take into account the fact that the transportation planners would
still be demonstrating conformity of their TIPs every 2 years. As EPA
program managers also noted, any time transportation planners add a
project to their TIP that was not in the plan, they would have to



2
 Thirty-one percent of survey respondents neither favored nor opposed, or are unsure at
this time, about combining the plan and TIP.




Page 4                                            GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
demonstrate conformity on both the TIP and plan. Furthermore,
transportation planners could, as needed, update their long-range plan and
associated conformity demonstration more frequently than required. In
fact, a number of transportation planners reported that they have done
this in order to add new projects, shift funds among projects, or make
other changes. All of these factors would help to ensure that adopting the
proposal to extend the frequency of updates to the long-term plan would
not have a significant impact on the conformity process and its role in air
quality protection. Because there are advantages to be gained from freeing
up transportation planners’ time and resources and ways to mitigate
potential disadvantages, we are recommending that DOT, in coordination
with EPA, consider (1) revising its regulations to extend the current 3-year
time frame between required updates of the long-range transportation
plan, and (2) submitting a legislative proposal to revise the conformity
provisions of the Clean Air Act so that they similarly extend the time frame
between required conformity demonstrations for the plan.

Transportation planners responding to our survey who experienced a
lapse or difficulty demonstrating conformity identified a second issue that
none of the three proposals in our study addresses, one that stems from a
difference between requiring updated transportation plans and TIPs but
not air quality plans and emissions budgets. Currently, transportation
planners must update their plans and TIPs and demonstrate conformity on
a regular basis. In doing so, they must use such factors as the most current
data on the size of the area’s population and the number and types of
vehicles in use. The planners must also input this data into the most
current version of the model that estimates future emissions from their
planned transportation projects. State air quality planners, on the other
hand, are not required to periodically update their plans and vehicle
emissions budgets to reflect the more current data and model.3 As a result,
if the more current factors or model indicate a larger than expected
increase in future emissions, the transportation planners must further
revise the projects they include in their plans and TIPs until they can offset
all of the additional increase and stay within the vehicle emissions budget.
Such revisions could cause some areas to delay projects, such as building
a new road, while other areas may not have that option and instead have


3
  In certain areas, state air agencies must conduct an inventory of emissions every 3 years,
but are not required to update their plans based on these data, even if the inventory shows
an increase in emissions. Some of these areas must use the data to demonstrate to EPA
that they are making the necessary progress in achieving air quality standards, and if not,
they may have to revise their plans accordingly.




Page 5                                              GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
             to rely on adding a number of projects to the plans and TIPs intended to
             reduce emissions. If states periodically updated their air quality plans to
             incorporate the most current data and model, they could reassess whether
             these types of transportation changes were best for an area, or whether
             they have achieved enough, or more cost-effective, reductions from other
             sources so that they could revise the vehicle emissions budgets and
             provide transportation planners some flexibility. Twelve of 45 air quality
             planners responding to our survey reported that they updated air quality
             plans and increased the emissions budget or built a safety margin into it,
             allowing transportation planners to be able to demonstrate conformity. In
             addition, 13 others reported that they would consider updating their plans.
             Conducting these updates, as with conducting transportation plan
             updates, can be challenging, time-consuming, and costly, however,
             according to 32 of the air quality planners and EPA program managers. For
             example, the air quality planners would have to solicit agreement on
             allowable emissions levels from all sources, stakeholders, and the public,
             and running the required photochemical model could take as long as 3
             years in larger metropolitan areas with many sources of air pollution.
             Recognizing that updating air quality plans could be costly for some areas,
             we recommend that EPA, in coordination with DOT, more
             comprehensively assess the potential disadvantages of such updates and
             the likely extent that anticipated benefits would be achieved by
             establishing a Clean Air Act requirement to regularly update state air
             quality plans with the most current data and models.

             We provided DOT and EPA with a draft of this report for their review and
             comment. Both agencies provided technical comments that we
             incorporated into the report as appropriate. DOT generally agreed with
             our conclusions and recommendations and said that the report was timely
             and highlighted issues that needed to be addressed. EPA generally agreed
             with our conclusions and recommendations for changes to the
             transportation planning process and the associated requirements to
             demonstrate conformity, but wanted to consult with the states before
             agreeing with our recommendation that the agency comprehensively
             assess the advantages and disadvantages of establishing a requirement to
             periodically update state air quality plans.


             The Clean Air Act requires EPA to establish air quality standards to protect
Background   public health and the environment. These standards—known as the




             Page 6                                    GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
“national ambient air quality standards”—establish health and
environmentally-based limits on the amount of six criteria pollutants that
are allowed in the air.4 States must develop state implementation plans
(SIP) for implementing, maintaining, and enforcing the standards.5 When
the level of any of these pollutants exceeds the standard in an area of the
country, EPA may designate that area as being in nonattainment of the
standard. Once the standard is attained, EPA redesignates the area as
being in attainment, but the state must submit revisions to its state air
quality plan demonstrating how it will maintain this level of air quality for
20 more years.6 The following map illustrates the counties of the nation
currently in nonattainment or maintenance for at least one of the six
criteria pollutants.




4
 The six criteria pollutants are ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen
dioxide, and sulfur dioxide.
5
    In some cases, localities within a state may also develop air quality plans.
6
 According to DOT conformity program managers, states are to submit these maintenance
plans in two 10-year increments, in part because it is difficult to make projections 20 years
into the future with some certainty.




Page 7                                                  GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
Figure 1: Counties in Nonattainment or Maintenance Status for at Least One Criteria Pollutant




                                         Note: If a county was designated both nonattainment and maintenance for different pollutants, they
                                         will appear on this map as being in nonattainment.


                                         The Clean Air Act requires states to develop the SIP. To begin, state air
                                         quality planners must estimate the emissions from mobile, point, and area
                                         sources. The air quality planners are then required to establish emissions
                                         goals for each of these sources and design cost-effective and feasible
                                         strategies that will result in progress towards attaining, or maintaining, the
                                         air quality standards. For on-road mobile sources, the emissions goal is
                                         known as a motor vehicle emissions budget. The total amount of
                                         emissions that can come from on-road mobile sources, such as cars,
                                         motorcycles, and trucks, as well as transit vehicles that include buses,
                                         cannot exceed this budget. EPA is responsible for approving the state’s
                                         initial air quality plan and any subsequent revisions to it. Although states



                                         Page 8                                                   GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
are not required to regularly update their plans for attaining or maintaining
the standards, they are required to update them at certain times, such as
when EPA revises an air quality standard or the area’s designation
changes.

Transportation planners also play a key role in making sure areas meet
their emissions budget. Local planning agencies are responsible for
carrying out the transportation planning process in a metropolitan or
urbanized area.7 As part of this process, these agencies are to develop
transportation plans and transportation improvement programs (TIP). A
transportation plan specifies a long-range, 20-year vision for a
metropolitan area’s transportation system. DOT regulations require that
for nonattainment and maintenance areas, their plans be updated at least
once every 3 years and attainment areas at least once every 5 years. In
contrast, the TIP is a short-range, more detailed document that specifies
the priority projects to be implemented in the next 3 years. Federal
transportation laws specify that all areas must update the TIP at least once
every 2 years. In developing the plan and TIP, the transportation planners
must consult with state and federal transportation and environmental
agencies, as well as the public. The purpose of this consultative
requirement is to ensure that all agencies meet regularly and share
information on changes to the area’s future network that will preserve air
quality.

Transportation planners rely on three types of information, among other
things, in developing their transportation plan and TIP: (1) the future size
of an area’s population and where the people will live and work, (2) how
these people will travel, and (3) what kind of transportation network is
and will be in place to meet travel needs. The planners predict future
travel most often by inputting this information into a model that forecasts
future travel demand, such as how many cars will be on a particular road
at a certain time. The planners determine the mix of transportation
projects they will propose in the plan and TIP to meet this demand.
Planners in nonattainment or maintenance areas for ozone, carbon
monoxide, particulate matter, or nitrogen dioxide must meet additional
requirements. While all planners must estimate future travel needs,
planners in nonattainment and maintenance areas must more precisely


7
 The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973 authorized the use of federal funding for local
planning agencies—known as metropolitan planning organizations—in areas with
populations of 50,000 or more to carry out planning at the metropolitan level. There are
currently 341 metropolitan planning organizations in the United States and Puerto Rico.




Page 9                                             GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                                        calculate the number of vehicle miles people will travel under the plan and
                                        TIP, and, among other things, input this information into another model
                                        that estimates the emissions their transportation plans will generate.
                                        Figure 2 outlines this travel forecasting process.

Figure 2: Process for Forecasting Future Travel Demand




                                        Note: In some cases, if conformity cannot be demonstrated, air quality plans and emissions budgets,
                                        rather than transportation plans, may be revised accordingly.




                                        Page 10                                                 GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
Under the Clean Air Act, transportation planners in nonattainment or
maintenance areas must demonstrate that the estimated emissions
generated through this process will not exceed the area’s emissions
budget, a process known as “demonstrating conformity.” Planners must
make this comparison at least once every 3 years, if they update either the
plan or TIP, or if states make certain changes to air quality plans. The
transportation planners must submit the results of this demonstration to
DOT, which reviews them, determines whether the area complies with the
requirements, and makes an independent conformity determination, in
consultation with EPA. If either the plan or TIP does not conform to the
emissions budget by a specified deadline, or if the plan or TIP expires
before a new one is adopted, the area enters into what is known as a
“conformity lapse.” In this case, the transportation planners can only
spend federal transportation funds on certain projects, such as safety,
mass transit, and air quality projects, until it resolves the problem and can
demonstrate conformity.

In 2004, EPA plans on designating nonattainment areas under two new,
more stringent air quality standards for ozone and fine particulate matter
in order to be more protective of public health. The current ozone
standard limits the concentration of ozone allowed in the air over a 1-hour
period of time. The revised standard is more stringent and is averaged over
an 8-hour period. EPA revised the standard because it is now known that
chronic exposure to the pollutant is a health concern. The new fine
particulate matter standard is also more stringent and covers smaller size
particles found in vehicle emissions, among other sources, which can be
more deeply inhaled, making them more likely to contribute to health
problems. Areas that EPA designates as not meeting either standard will
be subject to the conformity process 1 year after the effective date of this
designation.

The Congress has taken an interest in reviewing these requirements as it
attempts to reauthorize the nation’s surface transportation programs. To
help the Congress in its efforts, we first reported on the conformity
process and other transportation-related air quality programs and issues in
an October 2001 report, and in a statement for a congressional hearing




Page 11                                    GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
conducted in July 2002.8 A number of other stakeholders, such as research
organizations, industry associations, and environmental organizations,
have also issued reports or proposed changes related to transportation
planning and conformity as part of the TEA-21 reauthorization debate. For
example, Resources for the Future recently released a report examining
how conformity is affected by the transportation and air quality planning
processes.9 In addition, Harvard University’s Taubman Center for State and
Local Government issued a report discussing challenges that areas will
face in implementing the new standards, including requirements to
demonstrate conformity.10 Furthermore, industry groups, including the
Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations; the State and
Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of
Local Air Pollution Control Officials; the American Association of State
Highway and Transportation Officials; and Environmental Defense have
also developed positions on transportation planning, conformity, or both.

We were asked to review three proposals that could directly impact the
conformity requirements outlined in the Clean Air Act: (1) extending the
time between required updates of the long-range transportation plan, (2)
extending the time between required updates of the TIP, and (3)
combining these two documents into one. All three proposals would result
in extended time frames between conformity demonstrations. While we
recognize that other changes have been proposed that would impact the
conformity requirements, we did not include them in our review because
other organizations are either studying them or have recently issued
reports that discuss them. For example, transportation planners have
raised concerns about having to use the latest version of the model to
estimate future emissions, the MOBILE6 model, and the impacts the model
will have on their estimates. DOT and EPA have a number of modeling



8
 U.S. General Accounting Office, Environmental Protection: Federal Incentives Could
Help Promote Land Use That Protects Air and Water Quality, GAO-02-12 (Washington,
D.C.: Oct. 31, 2001; and Environmental Protection: The Federal Government Could Help
Communities Better Plan for Transportation That Protects Air Quality, GAO-02-988T
(Washington, D.C.: July 30, 2002).
9
 Winston Harrington, Arnold Howitt, Alan J. Krupnick, Jonathan Makler, Peter Nelson, and
Sarah J. Siwek, “Exhausting Options: Assessing SIP-Conformity Interactions,” RFF Report,
January 2003.
10
  Jonathan Makler and Arnold M. Howitt, “Regulating Transportation in New
Nonattainment Areas Under the Eight-Hour Ozone Standard,” Taubman Center for State
and Local Government, Presented at the 82nd Annual Meeting of the Transportation
Research Board, Washington, D.C., January 12-16, 2003.




Page 12                                          GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                         initiatives underway, such as training, to help address these concerns. In
                         addition, some planners have raised concerns because they have to
                         estimate emissions and demonstrate conformity over the entire 20-year
                         horizon of the long-range transportation plan, while air quality planners
                         typically only have to project emissions and set a budget for the period
                         until their attainment date, which is a shorter period of time. The
                         Resources for the Future study referred to above assessed the impact of
                         these differing requirements and ways to address problems they
                         presented.


                         Few areas that experienced a conformity lapse since 1997 had to revise or
Few Areas Have           change their transportation plans in order to resolve the problem. Instead,
Needed to Change         in order to end the lapse, most of these areas needed to resolve
                         administrative and technical problems or take additional time to complete
Transportation Plans     the conformity process. However, more than one-third of the
to Resolve a             transportation planners responding to our survey reported that they
                         expected their areas to have difficulty demonstrating conformity in the
Conformity Lapse, but    future. For example, a number of areas will be subject to EPA’s new, more
More May Need to Do      stringent air quality standards for ozone and fine particulate matter and
So in the Future to      will have to demonstrate conformity for the first time, posing challenges
                         for some areas.
Meet New Standards

One-Third of Areas Had   Over the past 6 years, 56 (35 percent) of the 159 transportation planning
Conformity Lapses but    areas with air quality problems had at least 1 conformity lapse, according
Most Were 6 Months or    to EPA and DOT data.11 Thirty-nine (65 percent) of these lapses lasted 6
                         months or less. Figure 3 shows the length of conformity lapses from 1997
Less                     through 2002.




                         11
                           Since 1997, 56 areas experienced a total of 60 conformity lapses. Four areas had more
                         than one conformity lapse during this period.




                         Page 13                                            GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                            Figure 3: Length of Conformity Lapses, 1997-2002




                            Lapses ranged from 4 days to just over 4 years, with the median lapse
                            lasting approximately 4 months. Nine conformity lapses lasted a year or
                            more, but EPA conformity program managers explained that most of these
                            areas did not have pending new projects and, therefore, were not under
                            time pressures to resolve their lapse. During the lapses, areas did not lose
                            their federal transportation funds permanently; rather, federal funds were
                            restricted to certain projects, such as safety, mass transit, and air quality
                            projects, until the lapses were resolved. The data the agencies provided
                            did not include information on the impacts that the lapses may have had
                            on new transportation projects, but, according to the DOT conformity
                            program manager, even short lapses can be disruptive to the
                            transportation planning process. For example, in some states, a short
                            lapse could delay the start of a project until the next construction season.


Most Conformity Lapses      Twenty-six of the conformity lapses that occurred since 1997 were caused
Were Caused by Resource,    by areas’ transportation planners lacking time and resources (8 lapses) to
Administrative, or          complete the conformity process by the established deadlines, or
                            experiencing administrative or technical problems (18 lapses). For
Technical Problems Rather   example, planners in eight of these areas indicated that they simply did not
than Difficulties Meeting   have enough time to complete the transportation planning and conformity
Emissions Budgets           processes. Several planners stated that they missed deadlines because
                            their area’s transportation planning organization did not have enough staff.


                            Page 14                                      GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
One of these planners noted that even though their organization had a
relatively small staff, they had to complete all the same steps in the
process as planning organizations with many more staff, such as the time-
consuming step of coordinating the plan among all relevant stakeholders
and the general public. Common administrative problems planners faced
included misunderstandings as to when deadlines occurred, confusion
about the specific requirements in the process, or delays at the federal
level in processing required paperwork. Technical problems included
difficulties related to the data needed to complete the process, such as the
types of vehicles in use, or the model that estimates emissions from
transportation plans and projects. Figure 4 shows the primary causes of
conformity lapses.

Figure 4: Primary Causes of Conformity Lapses, 1997-2002




Another 18 lapses resulted from areas experiencing difficulties in
designing a transportation plan that achieved sufficient emissions
reductions to meet the budget. However, in 6 of these cases, the difficulty
was with the conformity requirements and not with the amount of
emissions expected from the proposed transportation projects. For
example, some areas had more current data on the types of vehicles in use
that they had to incorporate into their most recent demonstration. Even



Page 15                                      GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                           though the planners did not change the mix of transportation projects in
                           their plan, the use of the new data resulted in a higher estimate of
                           emissions from the plan. In addition, areas must demonstrate that all 20
                           years of their long-term transportation plan will conform to the emissions
                           budget. However, states typically only set a budget for 10 years or less,
                           although in a few cases, states established budgets over a longer time
                           period, according to EPA program managers. As a result, transportation
                           planners generally must restrict emissions in each of the final 10 years of
                           the transportation plan to the amount that is set in the 10th year of the
                           emissions budget. This can pose problems because some areas are likely
                           to experience growth that could increase emissions in these later years.
                           Since the emissions budget does not cover these years, it does not account
                           for this growth. Therefore, areas may have to be more restrictive than
                           necessary in the types of projects they include in the later years of their
                           plans.

                           Finally, in six cases, planners in these areas experienced difficulties
                           meeting certain additional federal planning requirements. These included
                           DOT’s requirement that planners prove their area will have sufficient funds
                           to cover the projects in its TIP, and EPA’s requirement that a state’s air
                           quality plan and emissions budget be approved or found to be adequate
                           before it can be used for a conformity demonstration. In the remaining 10
                           cases, the EPA and DOT data did not provide the reasons why areas
                           missed the conformity deadlines.


Most Areas Needed to       Areas used a range of activities to resolve their conformity lapses,
Take More Time or Make     according to the data EPA and DOT provided. For example, the 8 areas
Technical Corrections to   that lapsed as a result of insufficient time or staff resources were able to
                           take the extra time to complete the process. Those 18 areas that
Their Conformity           experienced administrative or technical difficulties also resolved them by
Demonstration to Resolve   taking more time, making a technical change, using some other solution,
Their Lapses               or a combination of activities. Overall, we found that in 16 cases, areas
                           used some administrative or technical solution to resolve the lapse, while
                           in another 16 cases, areas took the additional time needed to catch up with
                           their schedules or workload. For example, in 7 of the 16 cases where areas
                           used an administrative or technical solution, areas had to apply the correct
                           model or other methodology to their conformity demonstration. Several of
                           these areas had to use updated versions of the model that predicts vehicle
                           emissions, or to update or correct other calculations in the conformity
                           analysis, such as projections of the number of miles people typically drive.
                           In 5 of the 16 cases, lapses were resolved through administrative actions,
                           such as federal agencies correcting delays in reviewing the required


                           Page 16                                   GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
paperwork to demonstrate conformity. Figure 5 shows the primary
solutions used to resolve their lapses.

Figure 5: Primary Solutions to Conformity Lapses, 1997-2002




Another 16 lapses were resolved through more substantive steps, such as
recalculating emissions budgets (11) or revising transportation plans (5).
In most of the 11 cases, the states revised their air quality plans to reflect
recalculated emissions budgets or to reflect strategies, such as the
introduction of more stringent emissions tests for cars or tighter controls
on emissions from industry and other sources, to reduce emissions. In the
5 cases, areas revised their TIP or long-range transportation plan to
achieve the necessary emissions reductions to demonstrate conformity.
For example, areas added mass transit projects to their plans because they
produce relatively lower emissions. Similarly, areas may have resolved a
lapse by taking credit for adding emissions-reducing programs to their
plan that they will implement in the future, such as the heavy-duty diesel



Page 17                                       GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                            rule designed to reduce the sulfur content of diesel fuel, a critical
                            component of provisions for reducing tailpipe emissions from heavy-duty
                            diesel engines.


Some Areas May Have         While most areas have been able to demonstrate conformity or resolve a
Difficulty Demonstrating    lapse through some administrative or technical action, some areas may
Conformity in the Future,   have difficulty demonstrating conformity in the future. Of the 253
                            transportation planners nationwide responding to our survey, 91 (36
Especially under the New    percent) reported anticipating having such difficulty in the future and, of
Air Quality Standards       these, 80 anticipated difficulty when EPA introduces the two new, more
                            stringent air quality standards. Another 52 respondents (21 percent) did
                            not know whether they would have difficulty demonstrating conformity in
                            the future.

                            Of the 91 planners who anticipate having difficulty, 59 work in areas that
                            already have air quality problems or had them in the past, and 32 work in
                            areas that have not had problems. These 32 planners will have to
                            demonstrate conformity for the first time if any county within their
                            jurisdiction is designated as being in nonattainment for either of the
                            standards. Using the most recent EPA air quality monitoring data, we
                            estimated that 88 counties currently meeting the 1-hour standard will not
                            meet the 8-hour standard. Figure 6 illustrates the counties that will not
                            meet the new ozone standard for the first time.




                            Page 18                                   GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
Figure 6: Counties Expected to Violate the New Ozone Standard for the First Time




                                         This estimate may be understated because EPA’s data are based on data
                                         received only from those counties that have an ozone monitor showing a
                                         violation of the standards. However, a number of other counties do not
                                         have monitors or data on air quality. In these cases, the state governor or
                                         EPA can still designate such counties as not meeting the standard. For
                                         example, if the county without data is contiguous to a county with data
                                         that show it violates the standard, the governor can recommend that EPA
                                         designate the contiguous county as also not meeting the standard because
                                         it contributes to a violation in another county, or EPA can independently
                                         decide to make this designation.



                                         Page 19                                   GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
According to an EPA conformity program manager, the agency has done a
preliminary analysis of the counties with data that show they will violate
either of the new standards, as well as contiguous counties that might be
designated as being in nonattainment. Using this information, EPA has
grouped counties into potential areas that would be subject to conformity
under either of the new standards. EPA estimates that about 150 areas will
be subject to conformity and that 50 of them will be demonstrating
conformity for the first time.

Several transportation planners volunteered to provide additional details
on why they were concerned about demonstrating conformity in the
future. Their concerns included not having the trained staff or funds to
complete the process. For example, one planner said the new standards
will require that more time and attention be given to the transportation
plans in order to demonstrate conformity, which will be burdensome and
difficult for local transportation planning agencies that have a small
number of staff. A DOT conformity program manager pointed out that in
addition to demonstrating conformity for the first time, these new areas
will now have to update their long-term plans every 3 years instead of 5 to
comply with current requirements, increasing the demand on staff and
resources. The program manager added that besides being resource
intensive, demonstrating conformity is also very challenging. For example,
the model used to estimate emissions is technically complex and some of
the planners, as well as other key stakeholders, expressed concerns about
whether the local planning organizations would have staff with the
requisite skills to run the model. Another planner, as well as a key
stakeholder, pointed out that while state transportation organizations
currently run the model for some local planners, the state organizations
might not have the staff or funds to manage an additional workload in the
future. In addition, while state organizations receive federal funds to
support local transportation planning activities, as more local planners
have to demonstrate conformity and need resources to do so, the state
agencies will have to spread these funds to a greater number of planners.
Furthermore, as our analysis of the causes of conformity lapses shows,
some transportation planners who had to demonstrate conformity to date
had difficulty understanding all of the conformity requirements or lacked
time to complete them, thus planners who will be demonstrating
conformity for the first time could also face these problems.

EPA and DOT have recognized that new areas may need help in
demonstrating conformity and have taken some action to provide it. For
example, areas will have a 1-year grace period after EPA formally
designates them as not meeting either one of the standards before the


Page 20                                   GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                     transportation planners will have to demonstrate conformity. In addition,
                     areas that meet the current ozone standard but that may violate the
                     revised standard can enter into a compact with EPA. Under this Early
                     Action Compact, an area can begin to take steps to control ozone now, and
                     in exchange, EPA will defer the effective date of the nonattainment
                     designation of the area, thereby postponing the requirement to
                     demonstrate conformity. DOT conformity program managers noted that
                     such compacts do not apply to areas that may be designated as being in
                     nonattainment for the fine particulate matter standard. Furthermore, (1)
                     DOT offered training courses on conformity and both agencies offered
                     training on the latest version of the emissions model, (2) the agencies are
                     developing several new courses, (3) they have entered into a cooperative
                     agreement with the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC)—
                     an association whose members include transportation planners—to
                     provide some training to members, and (4) DOT has established a Web site
                     for planners to exchange information on conformity issues. Finally, as
                     EPA program managers pointed out, since some of the areas that will have
                     to demonstrate conformity for the first time are contiguous to other areas
                     that have already had to demonstrate conformity, transportation planners
                     may already be experienced in the conformity process or, if not, can get
                     help from other planners in the state. The agencies’ actions to date,
                     however, do not address planners’ concerns about having enough
                     resources or staff with the necessary technical skills to successfully
                     demonstrate conformity.


                     Most of the planners who have to demonstrate conformity said the
Frequency of         frequency under the current requirements limits the time and funds
Demonstrating        available to address other transportation challenges. A proposed change to
                     the transportation planning process, which most of the planners favor,
Conformity and       would reduce the frequency of conformity demonstrations, thereby
Inconsistent         helping to address the problem transportation planners identified. They
                     also identified a second problem with the conformity process—the
Requirements for     difference between requirements to update transportation and air quality
Updating             plans—that the proposed change does not address. This difference can
Transportation and   result in transportation planners having to revise their transportation plans
                     in ways that may not best serve the transportation needs of the area.
Air Quality Plans
Cause Problems




                     Page 21                                    GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
Planners Said Current      Transportation planners responding to our survey reported that updating
Frequency of               their long-range plans as often as currently required does have certain
Demonstrating Conformity   advantages. One primary advantage they identified was that it gave them
                           an incentive to work cooperatively with other agencies. Such cooperation
Strains Time and           for transportation planners that must demonstrate conformity can
Resources but Support a    promote early and frequent coordination between transportation and air
Proposed Change That       quality planners, helping to avoid last minute conformity problems and
Could Reduce This Burden   lapses. Furthermore, frequent updates can help focus public attention on
                           transportation planning. For example, one transportation planner
                           commented that updating the long-range plan helped provide the public
                           with a greater understanding of the nature of air quality problems and why
                           alternative modes of travel may be needed in the future.

                           Given these advantages, nevertheless, 77 of the 118 (66 percent)
                           transportation planners who have to demonstrate conformity when they
                           update their long-range plan reported that the current frequency can limit
                           the amount of time available to address other transportation-related
                           challenges, such as relieving congestion and ensuring safety. In addition,
                           79 of the 118 (69 percent) said that it strains staff resources. Some
                           transportation planners expressed concern that once they complete a
                           long-range plan update, and demonstrate conformity if required to do so,
                           they are already behind in developing the next long-range plan. Some also
                           said they have no time in between plan updates to think more strategically
                           about future alternatives for their transportation network, build their
                           modeling and other technical skills, or obtain better information for their
                           planning process, such as congestion levels on certain roads.

                           The three proposals to change the transportation planning process that we
                           reviewed could also result in less frequent conformity demonstrations,
                           which would, in turn, address the planners’ concerns. However, the
                           majority of transportation planners responding to our survey favored only
                           one of the proposals—reducing the frequency of required updates to the
                           long-range transportation plan. Seventy-four percent (186) of the 253
                           transportation planners responding to our survey would be in favor of less
                           frequent plan updates, most preferring that these updates be performed at
                           least every 5 years. This could result in less frequent conformity
                           demonstrations for some areas. Besides freeing up time and staff
                           resources, another reason planners supported the change was that
                           planning factors, such as travel behavior and the transportation projects
                           already underway, do not change enough to justify the time and expense
                           of revising the plan every 3 years. In addition, they also responded that
                           extending the update cycle may provide more time to better coordinate
                           their plans and projects with other agencies and stakeholders, such as


                           Page 22                                   GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
local land use agencies that guide an area’s future growth and
development.

Planners were less supportive of the two other proposals to change the
transportation planning process that could also reduce the frequency of
conformity demonstrations—reducing the frequency of required updates
to the TIP and combining the TIP and plan into a single document.
Although planners recognize that both proposals would have benefits, they
noted that the changes would eliminate some advantages of the current
requirement. While 45 percent (113) of the planners supported reducing
the frequency of required updates to the TIP, a majority of the planners
who did not support the change reported that frequent updates of the TIP
allowed areas to add new projects that had not been part of the prior TIP
because funding priorities changed in the meantime. According to the
DOT conformity program managers, reducing the frequency of required
updates to the TIP does not preclude transportation planners from
conducting the updates more frequently.

Thirty-nine percent of the 253 planners responding to the survey did not
favor combining the TIP and plan. Some of these planners felt that the two
documents serve very distinct functions. For example, they believe the TIP
allows them to more easily respond to changing needs. Therefore, some
planners expressed concern that combining the two documents could
undermine the effectiveness of both plans. On the other hand, 30 percent
favored the change, stating that the TIP is really a subset of the plan and
having to demonstrate conformity on both plans is unnecessarily
redundant. (An additional 31 percent neither favored nor opposed the
change or were unsure of their position.)

Seventeen of the 45 state air quality planners responding to our survey
also supported reducing the frequency of updates to the long-range plan
(12 did not support the change and 16 were unsure or had no opinion).
When asked what effect the change would have on their state’s ability to
meet air quality standards, 16 said it would have a negative effect and 5
said it would have a positive effect (of the remaining planners, most said it
would have no effect or they had no basis to judge its effect). Some of the
air quality planners mentioned that the transportation network in high
growth areas could generate increased travel, resulting in higher
emissions. They suggested that these areas might warrant more frequent
updates to the long-range plan than the proposal would provide to ensure
that air quality goals are being met.




Page 23                                    GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                           The air quality planners who thought the change could have a negative
                           effect, however, were not asked to take into consideration the fact that the
                           transportation planners will still be required to demonstrate conformity of
                           their TIPs at least every 2 years when they are updated. In addition, EPA
                           program managers also noted that if planners want to include a new
                           project in their TIP that is not in their 20-year plan, they must demonstrate
                           conformity on both the TIP and plan. Furthermore, as our survey showed,
                           transportation planners could still choose to update their long-range plans
                           more frequently than once every 5 years, at which time they would be
                           required to demonstrate conformity. In fact, 58 (23 percent) of planners
                           responded that they update their long-range plans more frequently than
                           currently required, primarily to add new projects that are needed to
                           address the area’s changing transportation needs. All of these factors
                           would help to preserve the role that conformity plays in protecting air
                           quality, even under the proposed change. Because the proposal to extend
                           the frequency of updates to the long-range plan—and, therefore, the
                           frequency of conformity demonstrations—addresses the primary problem
                           transportation planners have with the conformity process, and the
                           proposal’s potential effects on air quality protection could be limited,
                           modifying conformity regulations and the Clean Air Act in this manner
                           may be feasible.


Requiring Updates to       Those transportation planners who experienced a lapse or said they had
Transportation Plans but   trouble demonstrating conformity in the past identified a second issue
Not Air Quality Plans      with the conformity process that stems from the difference between the
                           update requirements for the transportation and air quality plans. State air
Makes It Difficult to      quality planners are not required to regularly update their plans, even
Demonstrate Conformity     though an area may have experienced population growth and a sometimes
in Some Areas              unexpected increase in the types of certain vehicles in use, which in turn
                           can result in an increase in emissions. States with areas in nonattainment
                           for ozone and carbon monoxide are required to take an inventory of the
                           emissions being generated by each of the major sources every 3 years, but
                           are not generally required to update their air quality plans to reflect this
                           data. Consequently, the state air quality planners do not regularly reassess
                           to what extent they should revise the vehicle emissions budgets for
                           transportation, or add other measures to reduce emissions from mobile
                           sources to the plan, to offset this increase given their ability to reduce
                           emissions from industrial or area sources where possible. Transportation
                           planners, on the other hand, are required to update their TIP and plan on a
                           regular basis—at least every 2 or 3 years respectively for areas in
                           nonattainment or maintenance and every 2 or 5 years for areas in
                           attainment of the standards. With each of these updates, planners are


                           Page 24                                    GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
required to use the most current model that estimates the vehicle
emissions generated by their plans. They must also use the most current
information on factors that are inputs to the model, such as population
and the number and types of vehicles in use, so that they can more
realistically determine whether their plans and TIPs are consistent with
the emissions budget, according to EPA conformity program managers.
When this model and data indicate an increase in emissions, the
transportation planners must address it.

In the absence of an updated air quality plan, transportation planners must
generally try to offset all of the extra emissions from transportation
activities by revising their plan or TIP so that they do not have a
conformity lapse. However, transportation planners may be limited in the
ways in which they can make changes that reduce emissions enough to
meet the vehicle emissions budget and demonstrate conformity. For
example, one possible change is to remove projects that modeling
estimates may increase emissions in an area, such as a highway or road
expansion project, or to add measures, such as increasing the size of the
bus fleet that uses diesel engines. However, such projects were most likely
added to address other transportation challenges, such as reducing
congestion or better linking existing road networks. Furthermore, as one
transportation planner explained, planners in some areas may have few
projects to eliminate because the transportation network is already
developed.

Rather than eliminate projects, transportation planners can also try to add
certain emissions control strategies to their TIP or plan. These include
bicycle or pedestrian facilities or expanded transit options to discourage
the use of vehicles. Other strategies include synchronized traffic lights to
reduce idling vehicles, the conversion of public buses to cleaner burning
fuels, and the retrofitting of certain vehicles with cleaner engines. EPA
program managers also pointed out that transportation planners can
estimate the emissions reductions that will be achieved by new programs
they will implement but that are not yet in air quality plans, such as new
emissions standards for light-duty trucks. The planners can take credit for
the emissions reductions from such programs in order to demonstrate
conformity. However, these strategies may provide relatively small
emissions reductions.

For example, the Washington, D.C., region recently had difficulty
demonstrating conformity, in part because many more drivers than
anticipated were using higher-polluting sport-utility vehicles. Because
transportation planning staff were updating the TIP and plan, they had to


Page 25                                    GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
use this new data on vehicle use in their conformity demonstration, even
though the emissions budget that they had to meet was based on the older
data. The new data caused a significant yet unanticipated increase in the
emissions estimates for the area that the staff had to offset in order to
meet these outdated budgets. They delayed plans to build 100 miles of new
roads, but this did not create enough of a reduction. Therefore, they had to
add a number of emission control measures, such as park and ride lots,
shuttle bus services, and bicycle and pedestrian facilities at rail stations,
however these measures may achieve relatively small emissions
reductions.

The transportation planner in the Washington, D.C., region explained that
if the air quality planners were required to update their plans periodically,
account for the new model and data, and revise the emissions budgets, the
transportation planners might be able to demonstrate conformity without
cutting needed projects or adding costly control measures that achieve
little emissions reductions. If states were required to periodically update
their air quality plan, they would be required to reassess whether they had
achieved or could achieve more cost-effective ways to reduce emissions in
order to provide transportation planners with revised emissions budgets.
For example, 12 of the 45 air quality planners responding to our survey
said they had revised their air quality plan to update emissions budgets
used to demonstrate conformity and 13 said they would consider doing so.
Several planners that had updated their plan determined that the amount
of projected emissions from all sources was less than the level needed to
meet the standards, thus providing transportation planners a safety margin
in the emissions budget. Such efforts can help an area compensate for
unanticipated future growth or uncertainty in projected emissions.

In 2003, some states that used an older version of the emissions model for
their plan will have to update their air quality plan with the most recent
version, which could temporarily address the differing requirements in
these areas. In addition, according to EPA program managers, some areas
are in the process of voluntarily revising their SIPs with the new model as
well, and other areas that are designated as nonattainment for either of the
two new standards will have to submit new plans to address these
pollutants. Thirty-two of the 45 state air quality planners responding to our
survey reported that revising their plans would be somewhat challenging.
For example, with every update, air quality planners would have to obtain
public input and involve many stakeholders with competing interests,
especially those representing the other sources of pollution, including
industrial (point) sources. The air quality planners would also have to use
a complex photochemical model that estimates emissions from all


Page 26                                    GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
              sources, as well as the extent to which measures designed to control
              emissions achieve this result. According to air quality planners, running
              such a model requires a significant investment in resources and staff
              hours, and, according to one planner, can take as much as 3 years for a
              major metropolitan area with serious pollution problems to complete.
              Also, once a state revises its plan, EPA must review it and determine that it
              protects air quality before transportation planners can use the updated
              emissions budget to help them demonstrate conformity. Furthermore,
              according to EPA conformity program managers, some metropolitan areas
              will find they do not have the luxury of a safety margin to provide
              additional flexibility in their emissions budget. In considering whether to
              require updates of air quality plans to incorporate the most current data on
              travel patterns and emissions, as well as the most current emissions
              model, so as to resolve the difference with requirements to update
              transportation plans, stakeholders must weigh the potential benefits
              against the potential disadvantages.


              Overall, the conformity requirements of the Clean Air Act have helped to
Conclusions   integrate transportation and air quality planning processes to better
              consider the emissions from the nation’s transportation systems and
              networks. In addition, few of the localities that have experienced a
              conformity lapse to date appear to have had to make major changes to
              their future transportation systems. Localities may have trouble
              demonstrating conformity in the future, however, if they cannot meet new
              air quality standards for ozone and fine particulate matter and may have to
              complete the conformity process for the first time. Both EPA and DOT
              have been working on guidance and training, among other things, to help
              the transportation planners in these areas, but some are concerned about
              having enough resources and staff with the necessary technical skills to
              successfully complete the conformity demonstration.

              While the conformity process has its advantages, most transportation
              planners who have to demonstrate conformity find that the frequency with
              which they have to do this robs them of staff and resources that could be
              used to solve transportation problems. Extending the 3-year time frame
              between updates to the long-term transportation plans—as well as
              amending the conformity requirements in the Clean Air Act to match—
              would help to relieve some of this burden. Although some air quality
              planners fear this change would jeopardize their ability to meet clean air
              standards, this risk can be mitigated by several factors. For example,
              transportation planners will continue to demonstrate conformity when
              they update their TIPs or add new projects to the TIP that were not


              Page 27                                    GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                      previously in the plan. Also, a number of planners have already been
                      updating their long-term plans more frequently than required and could
                      continue to do so as needed under the change.

                      Finally, some transportation planners have found it difficult to manage the
                      conflict posed by the fact that they must frequently update their TIP and
                      long-term plan—incorporating the most current data on an area’s
                      population and travel patterns, as well as the most current version of the
                      model that estimates emissions—while air quality planners do not.
                      Establishing a requirement for air quality plans—and the vehicle emissions
                      budgets they set for conformity—to be periodically updated with this new
                      data and model could provide some benefits. These include incentives for
                      areas to develop a more realistic emissions budget and to determine
                      whether they could provide some flexibility in it so that transportation
                      plans would not have to be restricted or modified in ways that may not be
                      best for an area’s future. Some states updated their air quality plans and
                      have experienced such benefits. Recognizing that compliance with such a
                      requirement would be challenging and resource intensive for some states,
                      however, emphasizes the need to more comprehensively assess the
                      advantages and disadvantages of establishing such a requirement. One
                      option to consider would be to establish a long enough time frame
                      between required updates of the air quality plan as a way to limit the
                      impact on resources. In addition, better synchronizing the time frame for
                      air quality updates with the time frames established for transportation
                      planning updates, and basing both on the same, most current data and
                      models, would address the problems transportation planners identified
                      with the differences in requirements.


                      In order to make the conformity process a more effective and better link
Recommendations for   between air quality and transportation planning, we recommend the
Executive Action      following to the Secretary of Transportation and the Administrator, EPA:

                      •   DOT, in coordination with EPA, should consider extending the current
                          3-year time frame between required updates to the long-range
                          transportation plan and submitting a legislative proposal to change the
                          conformity provisions of the Clean Air Act so that they similarly extend
                          the time frames between required conformity demonstrations for the
                          plan.

                      •   EPA, in coordination with DOT, comprehensively assess the
                          advantages and disadvantages of establishing a Clean Air Act
                          requirement to periodically update state air quality plans so that they



                      Page 28                                     GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                         incorporate the same, most current planning data and emissions
                         models used in updates to the TIP and long-term transportation plans.


                     We provided DOT and EPA with a draft of this report for review and
Agency Comments      comment. We subsequently met with or received comments from
and Our Evaluation   representatives of the following offices:

                     •   DOT’s Office of Natural and Human Environment within the Federal
                         Highway Administration

                     •   DOT’s Office of Planning within the Federal Transit Administration

                     •   EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality

                     In general, DOT agreed with our conclusions and recommendations and
                     said that the report was timely and highlighted issues that needed to be
                     addressed. The DOT representatives said they would work with EPA to
                     address our recommendation to consider extending the current 3-year
                     time frame between required updates to the long-range transportation
                     plan, and looked forward to working with EPA to assess the advantages
                     and disadvantages of establishing a requirement to periodically update
                     state air quality plans. DOT also suggested some technical changes
                     throughout the report that we have incorporated as appropriate. In
                     general, EPA agreed with our conclusions and recommendations for
                     changes to the transportation planning process and the associated
                     requirements to demonstrate conformity. However, EPA neither agreed
                     nor disagreed with our recommendation that the agency comprehensively
                     assess the advantages and disadvantages of establishing a requirement to
                     periodically update state air quality plans. The EPA representatives said
                     they believe the states already have the flexibility to decide whether new
                     data or models justify the costs of conducting an update to the state air
                     quality plan and that states are in a better position to make this decision.
                     EPA also stated that they would want to discuss the issue with the states
                     to understand their perspectives and how the states currently decide
                     whether air quality plan updates are needed, before agreeing with the
                     recommendation. However, as our survey data show, even though states
                     have flexibility in deciding whether to update their plans, not all states
                     would be willing to consider doing so. Furthermore, our survey data show
                     that the current practice among the states has not resolved the problems
                     the transportation planners reported experiencing as a result of the
                     difference between requirements to update transportation plans but not
                     air quality plans, given that this was one of the most significant problems



                     Page 29                                    GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
transportation planners identified with the conformity process. Therefore,
we believe this issue merits further assessment by EPA to determine if
there is a possible solution, as we have recommended.

The EPA representatives also said they thought it was important to point
out not only the number of areas that have experienced a lapse, but also
the number of times an individual conformity demonstration resulted in a
lapse. While EPA did not have actual data to provide this statistic, the
agency estimated that since 1997, areas most likely conducted a total of
between 550 to 600 conformity demonstrations and that only 10 percent of
these demonstrations resulted in a lapse. Finally, EPA suggested some
technical changes throughout the report that we have incorporated as
appropriate.


As agreed with your office, unless you publicly announce the contents of
this report earlier, we plan no further distribution until 10 days from the
report date. At that time, we will send copies of this report to the
appropriate congressional committees; the Secretary of Transportation;
the Administrator, EPA; Director, Office of Management and Budget; and
other interested parties. We also will make copies available to others upon
request. In addition, the report will be available at no charge on the GAO
Web site at http://www.gao.gov. If you or your staffs have any questions,
please call me at (202) 512- 3841. Key contributors to this report were
Teresa Dee, Elizabeth Erdmann, Samantha Goodman, Stuart Kaufman,
Eileen Larence, Jonathan McMurray, and Anne Rhodes-Kline.




John B. Stephenson
Director, Natural Resources
 and Environment




Page 30                                   GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
              Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
              Methodology



Methodology

              The Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Environment and Public
              Works Committee, and Senator Lieberman asked us to determine (1) how
              many areas of the country have had their conformity lapse at least once
              since 1997 (the earliest date for which data are available), why, and what
              corrective actions were taken, and (2) what issues have planners
              encountered with the conformity process and the extent to which each of
              the proposed changes to the transportation planning process will address
              these issues.

              To address the first objective, we analyzed datasets supplied by the
              Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of
              Transportation (DOT) that listed the conformity lapses that have occurred
              in nonattainment or maintenance areas over the last several years. EPA’s
              Office of Transportation and Air Quality provided information supplied by
              its regional offices on lapses occurring since August 1997. The Federal
              Highway Administration, the agency within DOT that, along with the
              Federal Transit Administration, is directly responsible for making
              conformity determinations, provided information on lapses that have
              occurred since July 1999.

              We compared the data provided by both agencies to create a single, more
              comprehensive, and accurate dataset of all conformity lapses that have
              occurred since August 1997. We discussed and corrected any
              discrepancies between the two datasets with each agency and achieved
              consensus on a method to summarize and categorize the individual data
              points. In addition, to the extent possible, we corroborated lapse
              information we obtained from the agencies with information we obtained
              directly from the transportation planners in the areas with lapses. We
              obtained this latter information through our survey of each of the 341 local
              transportation planning organizations responsible for the conformity
              process in nonattainment and maintenance areas around the country.
              Furthermore, to fill in any remaining gaps in information on the causes of,
              and solutions to, conformity lapses, we conducted telephone interviews
              with the relevant transportation planners in those areas.

              To determine the accuracy and completeness of each agency’s data and
              their validity in providing evidence to support our findings, conclusions,
              and recommendations, we performed a data reliability assessment. All
              available information indicated the data to be sufficiently reliable for these
              purposes; corroborating evidence was strong and provided additional
              information necessary to ensure that the final consolidated dataset was
              accurate and relevant. To conduct this assessment, we subjected the
              datasets to documented standards that determine the sufficiency,


              Page 31                                     GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




competence, and relevance of supporting evidence. More specifically, we
verified three data components that were key to our findings: (1) the
location of nonattainment areas that have experienced a conformity lapse
since 1997, (2) the reasons or contributing factors for each conformity
lapse, and (3) the solutions or steps areas took to resolve each lapse.

To address the second objective, we conducted an Internet-based survey
of the 341 local transportation planning organizations in existence as of
November 2002. The survey included questions addressing the current
requirements for updating the short- and long-range transportation plans,
the current requirements for demonstrating conformity, and proposed
changes to the transportation planning and conformity requirements. We
did not attempt to gain information from the state departments of
transportation, which are responsible for transportation planning in those
areas without a designated local transportation planning organization. We
did not do so because the areas that the state departments of
transportation cover are relatively small—with a population less than
50,000. However, to help ensure that we identified any unique issues that
these smaller areas may have with the conformity requirements, we met
with officials of the American Association of State Highway and
Transportation Officials. Its members are the state agencies that would
conduct the conformity demonstrations for the smaller areas in their
jurisdictions.

We also conducted an Internet-based survey of the 50 state air quality
agencies, plus air quality planners in the District of Columbia and Puerto
Rico. These offices are responsible for preparing the state implementation
plan (SIP), which is a detailed description of the programs that a state will
use to carry out its responsibilities under the Clean Air Act to reduce air
pollution. This survey included questions concerning the air quality and
transportation planning processes, including conformity. Both surveys
were pretested with potential respondents to ensure that (1) the questions
were clear and unambiguous, (2) the terms we used were precise, (3) the
survey did not place an undue burden on the agency officials completing
it, and (4) the survey was independent and unbiased.

The practical difficulties of conducting surveys may introduce errors into
the results. Although we administered our survey to all known members of
both populations, and thus our results are not subject to sampling error,
nonresponse to the entire survey or individual questions can introduce a
similar type of variability or bias into our results—to the extent that those
not responding differ from those who do respond in how they would have
answered our survey questions. We took steps in the design, data


Page 32                                    GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




collection, and analysis phases of our survey to minimize population
coverage, measurement, and data-processing errors. These steps included
checking our population lists against known lists of planning
organizations, pretesting and expert review of the questions in the survey
instrument, and follow-up with those not reachable at original E-mail
addresses or otherwise not immediately responding.

The surveys were conducted using self-administered electronic
questionnaires posted on the World Wide Web. We sent E-mail
notifications to all 341 MPOs and 52 state air quality offices beginning on
January 13, 2003, and January 22, 2003, respectively. We then sent each
potential respondent a unique password and username by e-mail to ensure
that only members of the target population could participate in the
appropriate survey. To encourage respondents to complete the
questionnaire, we sent an E-mail message to prompt each nonrespondent
approximately 2 weeks after the initial e-mail message. We closed the
surveys on February 28, 2003, and March 7, 2003, respectively. For the
survey of transportation planners, we received a total of 253 responses, for
an overall response rate of 74 percent. For the survey of state air quality
offices, we received 45 out of 52 possible responses. Copies of each
survey, with the quantitative results, can be found in appendixes II and III.

For our analysis of the anticipated impact of the 8-hour ozone standard,
we used listings of the counties currently in nonattainment and
maintenance for the 1-hour standard and a listing of counties expected to
violate the 8-hour standard, both found on EPA’s Web site. For the map
depicting areas currently in nonattainment or maintenance for any of the
criteria pollutants, we used county listings found on EPA’s Web site, coded
and graphed each one using the counties’ Federal Information Processing
Standards (FIPS) code. EPA’s estimate of the number of counties likely to
be in violation of the 8-hour ozone standard is based on 3 years of 8-hour
monitoring data during 1999 through 2001. The 1-hour ozone data include
counties in nonattainment of the standard as of February 6, 2003.

Furthermore, to address the second objective, we also interviewed
cognizant officials and collected documented studies from the federal
agencies administering air quality and transportation programs, as well as
from relevant stakeholders. Specifically, we interviewed and gathered
documentation from (1) EPA program managers in the Office of
Transportation and Air Quality; (2) the Department of Transportation’s
(DOT) program managers in the Federal Highway Administration,
including the Office of Natural and Human Environment, and in the
Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Planning; and (3) relevant


Page 33                                    GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




stakeholders, including the following—the Association of Metropolitan
Planning Organizations, American Association of State Highway and
Transportation Officials, Environmental Defense, National Association of
Regional Councils, and the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program
Administrators/Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials.

We conducted our review from August 2002 through April 2003 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.




Page 34                                  GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                    Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
                    Planners



Planners




          Page 35                                                 GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




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          Appendix II: Survey of Local Transportation
          Planners




Page 53                                                 GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
                    Appendix III: Survey of State Air Quality
Appendix III: Survey of State Air Quality
                    Planners



Planners




          Page 54                                               GAO-03-581 Environmental Protection
          Appendix III: Survey of State Air Quality
          Planners




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          Appendix III: Survey of State Air Quality
          Planners




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          Appendix III: Survey of State Air Quality
          Planners




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          Appendix III: Survey of State Air Quality
          Planners




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          Appendix III: Survey of State Air Quality
          Planners




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                     Appendix III: Survey of State Air Quality
                     Planners




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