Commentary

EPA Funds Anti-Sprawl Politics with Tax Dollars

This article first appeared in the Houston Chronicle on February 23, 2000.
Should government agencies with hidden agendas be allowed to carry out those agendas by giving money to special interest lobbies?

Government funding of lobby groups subverts democracy, especially when those groups pose as grass-roots organizations.

A year ago, Vice President Al Gore announced the administration’s war on sprawl, meaning low-density suburbs. Since then, what appears to be a grass-roots movement against sprawl has sprung up all over the country. But it turns out that most of those anti-sprawl groups are either funded by the Environmental Protection Agency or supported by EPA-funded groups.

The EPA has a mandate to reduce air pollution from automobiles and other sources. Clean technologies such as catalytic converters and improved fuels are the proven way to reduce automotive pollution.

Because of such technologies, Americans drove more than twice as many miles last year as in 1970, yet our air is cleaner every year.

Trying to clean the air by discouraging auto driving has never been successful. Yet the EPA wants actively to create disincentives for auto usage. Since Congress traditionally frowns on such social engineering, the EPA decided to fund other groups to lobby for this goal. As described in a recent Cato Institute report by Peter Samuel and myself titled “Smart Growth at the Federal Trough,” since 1996 the EPA has given $8 million to anti-auto groups.

Personally, I would rather ride a bike than drive. But more than 80 percent of all urban travel in the United States is by automobile. Two-thirds of all urban Americans live in low-density suburbs.

As a General Accounting Office report recently concluded, there is no evidence that federal subsidies or policies promote driving or low-density suburbs. The war on autos and low-density suburbs is a war on the lifestyles freely chosen by the majority of Americans.

EPA-funded groups promote congestion by opposing new road construction, even when those roads are funded exclusively by highway users. They also encourage higher density housing, which leads to more driving on roads that are already filled to capacity. They call these policies “smart growth” even though they are anything but smart.

For example, increased congestion makes air dirtier because cars pollute more in stop-and-go traffic than at free-flowing speeds.

In the last four years, the EPA has given well over $6 million to “transportation partners” such as the Surface Transportation Policy Project, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Bicycle Federation of America to support those groups’ efforts to reduce auto driving.

These groups work with a network of local and state groups to lobby city, state, and federal officials against highways.

The EPA has also given more than $2 million to groups seeking to curb density suburbs by promoting smart growth. Smart growth’s goal is to discourage auto driving by increasing suburban densities (and therefore congestion) and promoting “pedestrian-friendly” (meaning auto-hostile) neighborhoods.

The EPA knows that suburbanites don’t want this, so it promotes stronger regional governments that can impose their will on suburban areas.

The EPA has also funded and designed Web sites promoting anti-auto and smart- growth policies. The transact.org Web site includes a list of highway projects that the groups funded by EPA are trying to kill.

The smartgrowth.org Web site promotes anti-auto urban design.

Normally, a government-funded Web site uses a dot-gov suffix. But the EPA sites use a dot-org suffix, misleadingly suggesting that they were built by non- governmental organizations.

When Peter Samuel sent an e-mail to the Webmaster at smartgrowth.org, the reply came from an EPA employee who admitted that the EPA used the dot-org suffix so as not to “alienate potential users.”

Last spring, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee asked EPA some hard questions about these programs. In response, the EPA announced that it would discontinue its formal transportation partners program. But it still gives money to the same groups, just not under the name “transportation partners.”

Far from being a grass-roots movement, smart growth is a movement of elites, funded by the EPA, who want to impose their wills on everyone else.

The EPA should stick to its legal goal of trying to clean the air. Its policies of promoting congestion by funding anti-auto groups not only make air dirtier, they subvert the democratic process.

Randal O’Toole is senior economist with the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute and the author of the Cato Institute study, “Smart Growth at the Federal Trough: EPA’s Financing of the Anti-Sprawl Movement.