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2009 Transportation Bill

Construction Industry and Green Group Join Hands on Clean Diesel

Clean diesel engines, which expel less emissions and get better mileage than conventional counterparts, are benefiting from a lobbying campaign by auto companies. And environmental advocates have come to the table, agreeing with the construction industry on a plan to convert highway construction equipment to clean diesel.

south_ferry_tour.jpgA clean-diesel excavator at work in New York City. (Photo: EPA)

The accord between the Clean Air Task Force and the Associated General Contractors was first reported in today's Greenwire: 

The groups want the [next long-term transportation] legislation to authorize states torequire diesel emissions reductions at construction sites and to coverthe cost of retrofitting or re-powering equipment manufactured to meetearlier emissions standards.

The proposal would not alter the bidding process forcontractors hoping to land federally funded transportation projects,and any additional costs of the emissions-savings measures would becovered by federal funding.

Federal fundsto reimburse contractors for any increased costs they incur would comefrom an existing federal air-quality program, the Congestion Mitigationand Air Quality Improvement Program.

On its face, the deal sounds promising. Exhaust from older, dirtier diesel engines contains more than 40 separate toxic contaminants, according to California state air regulators, but diesel emissions standards have been strengthened at a far slower rate than those for conventional autos.

Moreover, providing government funding to help convert diesel highway equipment -- thus ensuring the construction industry doesn't foot the bill -- has paid off in California, known for its ahead-of-the-curve approach to air pollution.

But using funds from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program to pay contractors for converting their engines risks depleting a crucial source of aid for clean transportation. The set of "Clean Construction Principles" [PDF] endorsed by the industry and environmentalists states that "Congress should set aside a significant percentage of the funding it has historically provided for the CMAQ program" to pay for a move to clean diesel.

In the recent past alone, CMAQ money has helped avert transit service cuts in the Bay Area, paid for new buses in Las Vegas, and expedited work on a new bicycle and pedestrian trail in Indiana. If Congress takes money away from the program for clean-diesel construction, would the "funding it has historically provided" be increased to keep investing in sustainable transport?

Late Update: Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Clean Air Task Force, said in an interview that his group would not be amenable to diminishing clean transportation funds to pay for diesel conversions. The "Clean Construction Principles," he noted, also suggest that Congress dedicate new money for cleaner-burning construction.

"CMAQ wouldn't be the first place we'd want to look," he said, "but if that was the only way to make
this program happen, we would want to see additional incremental money [for the program]."

The clean-diesel cause also has attracted significant support from House Democrats. In a letter spearheaded by Rep. John Hall (D-NY) last month, 55 Democrats urged leaders of the transportation committee to preserve public health by requiring road construction equipment to emit less pollution. The group wrote:

Today, more than 88 million Americans live in counties that violate federal health standards for fine particulate pollution. Therefore it should come as no surprise that pollution from diesel construction equipment poses a health threat to people across the country, communities large and small and project workers alike. ...

To address this problem, we request that transportation projects built with federal funds minimize any adverse impact on a community's air quality. This would mean requiring that construction vehicles working on federally funded transportation projects use a diesel particulate filter which can virtually eliminate a diesel engine's fine particulate emissions. If the construction equipment slated for use on a job does not already meet this level of control, we request that the [long-term federal transportation bill] include funding to pay for these filters.

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