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EPA action could cost Alaska city transportation funds

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(The Center Square) – Despite federal assurances that the change would have no significant impact, the Fairbanks-North Star Borough could lose state transportation dollars after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected part of a plant to reduce winter pollution.

The EPA issued a conformity freeze that affects the 20-year Long Range Transportation Plan and 4-year Short Range Transportation Improvement Program, according to Jackson Fox, executive director of Fairbanks Area Surface Transportation Planning, also known as FAST.

“When these planning documents are frozen we cannot add any new transportation projects to these plans or significantly modify funding amounts for existing projects (anything that would trigger a Plan Amendment),” Fox told The Center Square. “We can only implement the projects that are already on the books with little to no modification. The nature of transportation projects, however, is a constant moving target with frequent funding and schedule changes so it will inhibit our ability to implement our program effectively and possibly even lose transportation dollars in some cases.”

The EPA said in a news release that state and local officials should have an air quality plan approved in July, and “formal approval of that plan would eliminate any practical impact of a freeze.”

However, Alaska has a short construction season due to winter weather. Without approved funding, projects slated to begin in spring could be sidelined.

The conformity freeze is part of the Clean Air Act, first enacted in 1970, when things were different, Fox said in a letter to the EPA sent earlier this year.

“The Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed to protect public health and welfare at a time when pollution from vehicles was serious problem in urban areas and included a correlated sanction for withholding Federal highway funding, yet in present time the EPA touts major successes in vehicle pollution control in the U.S. by stating vehicles today are 99% cleaner for most tailpipe pollutants than in 1960s and 1970s; thus, making the 53-year old sanction no longer relevant,” Fox said in the letter.

Vehicle emissions are responsible for only 6.8% of emissions in the area, according to Fox.

“The sanction would severely impact the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities and FAST Planning, which have no control or influence over other emission sources (i.e. woodsmoke) that are actually causing the problem,” Fox said in his letter. “These punitive measures on transportation make the appearance the EPA is not truly focusing on helping solve the problem (i.e. efforts where progress can be made in the highest emission source categories).”

The state did have one victory in the EPA’s ruling. The agency will not require the state to mandate ultra-low sulfur diesel for home heating. The move was considered “neither practical nor affordable” after further analysis, EPA said in its report.

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