Some officials and experts hope that Congress will finally recognize the impact that road projects have on the Chesapeake and other rivers, lakes and bays when members take up new federal transportation legislation this spring.
Each year, Congress provides about $27 billion nationwide for road projects, but little of that is used to address the environmental impacts of stormwater washed off roads and parking lots.
With the cost of cleaning up the Bay expected to reach billions of dollars by the end of the decade, many state officials and environmentalists see the next version of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century as a vehicle to steer some needed cleanup money toward the Chesapeake.
The new highway bill, called TEA-3 by Washington insiders, will allocate $162 billion over the next six years and is expected be completed by summer.
Polluted stormwater is one of the biggest threats to the Bay, and state leaders have recently set ambitious goals for improving its management. Stormwater runoff is the primary reason more than 1,500 miles of streams in the Bay watershed fail to meet water quality standards.
“Transportation, water quality and land use are all interlinked,” said Lee Epstein of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The Chesapeake Executive Council — which includes the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia; the EPA administrator; the District of Columbia mayor; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission — recently committed the Bay states to establish by 2005 programs that would ensure that stormwater systems along 177,000 miles of roads in the watershed are designed to protect water quality.
Developed land contributes much of the pollution reaching the Bay — 11 percent of the nitrogen, 16 percent of the phosphorus and 9 percent of sediment, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program.
The witches’ brew of chemicals in stormwater also makes runoff from roads and parking lots one of the biggest sources of toxic pollution flowing into “hot spots” such as parts of the Anacostia and Elizabeth rivers.
“Roads both directly and indirectly are the leading cause of polluted runoff from urban areas,” said Betsy Otto, director of Watershed Programs for American Rivers, a national river conservation group.
The growth of “impervious” surfaces, such as roads and parking lots, pose other problems as well, including greater flood heights. One recent study found that floods occur more frequently as the amount of land in a watershed is covered with asphalt.
Another study found that a one-acre parking lot produces 16 times as much runoff as a one-acre meadow.
“Billions are being spent on roads, and we’re seeing more and more that these roads have significant impacts on the health of our waterways,” said Connie Musgrove, an EPA expert temporarily assigned to work with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “The problem we face is that the funding to address these impacts is beyond what states can realistically provide.
Although states can use some federal transportation funds to mitigate stormwater impacts from highway reconstruction projects, they must also finance other highway, mass transit and trail projects from the same pot of money. Consequently, states typically do not use these funds to address problems created by stormwater runoff.
In the past, Congress created a dedicated $1.3 billion annual fund to address the air quality problems created by vehicle emissions. But, legislators have not created a similar dedicated fund to address the water quality impacts of roads.
“We have to make better connections between our transportation programs and the water quality problems created by transportation,” said Charles Fox, former Maryland DNR secretary. “One of the future challenges we are going to have to contend with is making the link between clean water and transportation.”
New federal stormwater regulations will go into effect in March, putting new pressure on smaller counties and communities to finance new stormwater plans and infrastructure.
And, some states are beginning to develop federally mandated pollution budgets called Total Maximum Daily Loads for waterways too polluted to comply with the Clean Water Act.
Stormwater management has traditionally focused on collecting and moving runoff to temporary detention ponds that keep roads dry but accomplish little else. In recent years, some communities have emphasized techniques that allow stormwater to infiltrate the ground, which helps to filter pollutants and recharge groundwater.
“The next highway bill provides an opportunity to adequately buffer streams from the impacts of new or expanded roads, and to provide incentives for practices that capture, treat and infiltrate runoff right on site,” said Otto of American Rivers. The bill could also encourage communities to consider water quality impacts as they complete regional transportation plans, she said.
Getting people out of their cars and into mass transit, as well as better regional transportation planning, will be high priorities of national environmental groups. A growing amount of the nitrogen reaching the Bay begins in the tailpipe of a car or truck.
Environmental groups hope that more funding will be provided for mass transit, including programs to reward employers who help finance mass transit. To date, efforts to reduce the number of “vehicle mile traveled” in the Washington D.C. metropolitan region, for example, have met with limited success.
“But, if we could use all of the tools at our disposal, we can start to reduce the rate of increase,” Epstein said. “We’ve made a little progress in the past decade but not much.”
Many doubt that the new Congress, under heavy pressure from powerful highway interests, will provide significant new funding for the environment.
The committee chairmen writing the highway bills are from rural states — Alaska and Oklahoma — where air and water quality problems are not considered pressing issues. And, some members of Congress will try to “streamline” transportation plans — making it easier to build roads without full consideration and mitigation of the environmental impacts.
“There are extremely powerful, well-organized highway interests who will be fighting very hard to protect and even expand their piece of a shrinking pie,” said a Congressional staffer.