It is difficult to think of an analogy. Perhaps it’s like a rock star moving in next door. Or having a not-very-favorite cousin inherit a large sum and tell you she’s planning to share some of it with you. The bottom line is you’re not really sure you like what’s going on, but it could be worse not to take advantage of it.

“It,” in this case, is the comprehensive transportation bill recently enacted by Congress. Last time, it was called the “Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act” and had a cool and refreshing acronym pronounced “iced tea.” This round it is named the “Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century,” and shortens to TEA-21, sort of an adults-only version.

What makes it scary is that it provides a powerful 40 percent increase in highway construction funds over the next six years. What is encouraging is that it includes a number of new provisions to makes those highways more environmentally friendly, if we can make them work.

Given recent history and trends in the Chesapeake Bay region, making them work here is probably as important as anywhere in the country. If we are to restore and protect the Chesapeake, we know we need to reduce and then hold the line on nutrients and toxics running down the rivers and into the Bay. As we see the results of lower loadings from treatment plants and agricultural areas, we have turned to urban stormwater and air pollution as the major remaining sources needing attention. And we have learned more about the valuable role played by forests in trapping and absorbing pollutants.

This emerging understanding by citizens throughout the watershed has led many to conclude that the way we are developing as a region across the landscape may be more significant than how many of us there are or how many jobs we have generated in our regional economy. The result has been a number of calls for more rational development patterns. Whether you call it smart growth or low-impact development or “Principles for Land, Growth and Stewardship” (adopted by the Chesapeake Executive Council in 1996), it all calls for the same thing: protect farms and forests and other key natural areas; invest in our existing towns and cities; and ensure that new development is compact and within or adjacent to other developed areas.

The problem is that highways have traditionally been associated with high-impact development, including suburban and rural sprawl, consumption of farms and forests, and increased air pollution. At the same time, highway engineers have been ingrained with the belief that they are only responding to demand for more highways from development already in place or committed. The authors of TEA-21 have made real efforts to resolve this paradox, but success depends on active citizen involvement.

Here in the Chesapeake region, we know that continuing with the current way of doing business won’t do. Vehicle miles traveled are increasing at four times the population increase. Commuting times are increasing; the Washington D.C. area is now second to Los Angeles in time wasted in traffic.

Furthermore, the areas of greatest congestion are as often in the new suburbs as in the older cities. And we are losing more and more farms and forests and freshwater wetlands to fringe development.

What is clear is that TEA-21 will shape the patterns of land development and the resultant sustainability of natural systems in the Bay watershed well into the next century. TEA-21 truly is “transportation for grownups.” The next few months are critical for involvement as many of the new provisions go into effect. So what do we have to look forward to?

First, there is a major expansion of both funding and eligibilities for the Transportation Enhancement Program. This provides money to improve the cultural, aesthetic and environmental quality of communities through such projects as bicycle and pedestrian facilities and paths; historic preservation; and rails-to-trails projects.

Two important new eligibilities are to mitigate water pollution from highway runoff and to purchase scenic easements. Each of these could be of major value in our region. The first would allow us to deal with the “first flush” of a storm, when such a high concentration of toxics and other contaminants wash off highways and other surfaces into the nearby streams. The second could mean protecting large areas of fields and forests along roads from future development, assuring a preserved landscape and providing the impetus to develop near existing communities.

There are new provisions to use mitigation banking for the loss of not only wetlands, but also other natural habitats. Impacts from past transportation projects can also be offset by the use of funds for wetlands restoration, enhancement and creation.

Then there are some interesting opportunities in Section 1108 related to highway reconstruction, rehabilitation, resurfacing and restoration. Up to 20 percent of funds can be used for environmental restoration and pollution abatement associated with such projects, including stormwater management and riparian and wetlands restoration.

Finally, Section 1221 sets up a new pilot program on Transportation and Community and System Preservation. Funded at $25 million per year ($20 million in 1999), this allows states, metropolitan areas and local governments to plan, develop and implement strategies to integrate transportation with community preservation. Our region, where the character and tradition of existing communities is so important, could make good use of this pilot program.

We need to realize that all these new concepts will take some time to get from paper to real changes in the way we plan transportation to support our communities. There are a large number of projects already in the pipeline which will probably bump along under the old procedures and show little effect from TEA-21.

But changes are already in the wind. New provisions related to environmental reviews by federal agencies will result in much earlier consultation by state highway departments. In the past, federal reviews came late and were focused on extremely localized issues like wetlands or endangered species. As a result, there was little opportunity to deal with larger issues of regional impact or to question the need for the project.

That this will change has already been signaled by reopened discussions between Virginia’s Department of Transportation and federal agencies over the Northern Virginia Bypass. The key question is whether this is really going to be a bypass or if it will just suck development farther into the unprotected countryside. If you want to get a feel for the answer, ask the supporters if they would agree to a “zero-interchange” policy with a 150 percent payback to the federal taxpayer if and when any interchange is built in the future. That would be a policy for a bypass. And those are the kinds of questions and options that TEA-21 should encourage.

The success of TEA-21 will depend on how successfully states use their new authorities to invite public debate on issues early enough to deal with real alternatives that impact the way we as a region will spread out across our landscape. The 20 Year Transportation Plan is the right place for that debate, but so are the DOT Listening Sessions and Seminars on TEA-21 that will take place in coming months.

There are some powerful tools in this new law, but if not used well they can be weak in the face of the immense investments that will be made. Will the money be spent wisely to support and sustain our watershed and the natural systems it depends on? And will we end up in communities with character and the capability to retain it? We all need to get smart fast on TEA-21.