Would a Bush White House stymie Atlanta's progress on sprawl?
For years, Bryan Hager sounded like an Old Testament prophet.
An activist with the Sierra Club, Hager studied Atlanta's growing sprawl and air pollution, and howled that more and more asphalt was worsening those problems. State and local officials ignored the din and kept on road building.
Finally, four years ago, a ruling came from on high: The federal government declared Atlanta's air pollution so bad the metro area would lose highway funding. The region's political dynamic changed. Ambitious highway projects were put on hold in favor of plans for rail lines and bike paths. Developers began to see profits in the pedestrian-friendly, inner-city projects. And a whole new state agency — the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority — was created to address congestion and pollution.
But Hager is worried again.
"If George Bush is elected, we can see a redirection at the EPA ... and possibly the rewriting of federal regulations on air quality and water quality," he says.
Conservatives agree that Bush would bring a different philosophy on sprawl and other environmental issues to the White House. They view the difference as positive.
"I don't think a Bush White House is going to essentially blackmail us with our own money" to change Atlanta's transportation patterns, says Kelly McCutchen, executive vice president of Georgia Public Policy Institute.
McCutchen argues that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's emphasis on getting Atlanta to clean its air with mass transit and denser development actually could worsen the region's air pollution, because more inner-city development would create more stop-and-go traffic. He says a Bush administration would give Georgia and metro officials more leeway to spend federal money on highways.
That's precisely what scares folks like Hager, who argue that the state only dealt with the issue after the feds stepped in.
Much of Atlanta's anti-sprawl drive is rooted in federal legislation. In 1990, the then-Democratic Congress passed and President George H. Bush signed amendments to the Clean Air Act that tied air pollution to road building.
The amended act requires communities that don't meet federal clean air standards to come up with transportation plans that won't add to the pollution problem. If communities fail to do so, the feds can freeze their road-building money.
In 1996, that "conformity" rule took affect in Atlanta. Metro Atlanta had become a national poster child for road building run amok. The feds discovered that Atlantans were driving more miles per person than were residents of any other city. And the region's hot summer air was combining with car and power-plant pollution to create a lethal ozone-smog problem. Computer models showed that a transportation plan developed by the Atlanta Regional Commission would worsen the air pollution. The consequence was drastic: Federal money for most metro road projects stopped flowing.
Some local officials reacted angrily. Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Wayne Hill met with senators and representatives in an attempt to have the Clean Air Act amended.
Suburban Atlanta congressmen respon-ded with their own attempts to reverse the federal position. Last spring, U.S. Rep. John Linder, R-Tucker, offered an unsuccessful amendment on an appropriations bill to bar federal transportation agencies from enforcing the conformity standard. Last summer, Linder and Rep. Mac Collins, R-Jackson, passed a separate amendment requiring the EPA to stick with older, more permissive air-pollution standards, until the Supreme Court rules whether the agency was right to adopt tougher, new standards.
Linder Chief of Staff Rob Woodall says his boss wants to loosen the air-pollution restrictions to help the region attract new industry. "It's just a real burden for these communities to be labeled as polluters," Woodall says. "If you're an industry, you are not going to want to locate in an area you believe will be having environmental problems down the road."
But Democrats and environmentalists argue that Bush's election would clear the way for legislation — most likely in the form of an amendment to an appropriations bill — that would take the teeth out of federal efforts to get local officials to deal with sprawl.
"With Bush in there, your voice on environmental reason is gone," says George Dusenbury, an aide to Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta. "I mean look at Texas. Texas is worse off than Georgia."
The issue hasn't come up in the presidential campaign in Georgia, where the largest daily newspaper has offered little local coverage of the campaign and where the Gore campaign apparently has thrown in the towel.
"We would have very much liked to have seen Gore campaign in the state. We endorsed him, and we wanted to see [environmental] issues promoted," Hager says. "Citizens in Georgia care about the environment as much as citizens anywhere else."