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Report | TexPIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Highway Boondoggles 5

America’s aging roads and bridges need fixing. Our car-dependent transportation system is dangerous, harms our communities, and is the nation’s leading source of global warming pollution. And more than ever before, it is clear that America needs to invest in giving people healthier, more sustainable transportation options.

Yet year after year, state and local governments propose billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and key transportation priorities. Highway Boondoggles 5 finds nine new budget-eating highway projects slated to cost a total of $25 billion that will harm communities and the environment, while likely failing to achieve meaningful transportation goals.

Highway expansion costs transportation agencies billions of dollars, driving them further into debt, while failing to address our long-term transportation challenges.

·         Highway expansions are expensive and saddle states with debt.

o   In 2012, the latest year for which data is available, federal, state and local governments spent $27.2 billion on highway expansion projects – sucking money away from road repair, transit, and other local needs.

o   From 2008 to 2015, the highway debt of state transportation agencies nearly doubled, from $111 billion to $217 billion.

o   New roadway is expensive to maintain, and represents a lasting financial burden. The average lane mile costs $24,000 per year to keep in a state of good repair.

·         Highway expansion doesn’t solve congestion.

o   Expanding a highway sets off a chain reaction of societal decisions that ultimately lead the highway to become congested again – often in only a short time. Since 1980, the nation has added more than 800,000 lane-miles of highway – paving more than 1,500 square miles, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island – and yet congestion today is worse than it was in the early 1980s.

·         Highway expansion damages the environment and our communities.

o   Highway expansion fuels additional driving that contributes to climate change. In 2017, transportation was the nation’s number one source of global warming pollution.

o   Highway expansion can also cause irreparable harm to communities – forcing the relocation of homes and businesses, widening “dead zones” alongside highways, severing street connections for pedestrians and cars, and reducing the city’s base of taxable property.

News Release | TexPIRG Education Fund | Transportation

“North Houston Highway Improvement Project” makes national list of highway boondoggles

Despite boasting one of the most extensive highway systems of any city in the country, Houston is planning to spend $7 billion on the “North Houston Highway Improvement Project.” According to a new report from TexPIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group, the project would expand I-45 through the middle of Houston, displacing homes and dividing communities.

“The fundamental law of road congestion is that if you build it, they will come,” said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Education Fund director. “More highways means more cars, so policymakers are living in a ‘Field of Dreams’ if they think this project will reduce congestion.”

“To improve Houston’s transportation system, we have to reduce our reliance on cars and highways,” Scoggin continued.  “This project does the opposite, doubling down on a car-centric system that will lead to more traffic, pollution and sprawl.”

Letter to Gov. Abbott: Sign SB1264

By | Bay Scoggin
State Director

Today, TexPIRG asked the Governor to get SB1264 off his desk and into law, protecting consumers with non-federal health plans from ever having to deal with surprise medical bills again. Check out what we had to say.

News Release | TexPIRG | Transportation

TexPIRG endorses “Clean School Bus Act” to protect the health of Texas’ children

AUSTIN -- Sens. Kamala Harris, Jeff Merkley, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Tina Smith, Diane Feinstein and Catherine Cortez Masto introduced a bill Thursday aimed at helping local school districts transition to all-electric transportation. The bill sets up a federal grant program, authorizing $1 billion over five years for grants of up to $2 million per school district, to replace diesel school buses with electric school buses, invest in charging infrastructure, and support workforce development.

Over 25 million American children, and roughly 3 million Texas children, as well as thousands of school bus drivers, breathe polluted air on traditional diesel yellow school buses every day. Diesel pollution stunts the growth of kids’ lungs and worsens asthma symptoms, and has also been linked to poorer academic performance.

Bay Scoggin, the Director of the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG), issued the following statement:

“Our kids shouldn’t have to breathe dirty, dangerous air just to get to school. As the negative health impacts of long-term exposure to diesel exhaust become clearer, the need to move to zero-emission school buses becomes more urgent. We applaud and endorse this proposal, because it will help protect the health of America’s children.

“Texas can look at this as a model and expand the Texas Clean School Bus Program, which currently has only $6.1 million, despite requests for funding exceeding $11.5 million. TexPIRG applauds the Legislature’s decision to draw down the balance of the Texas Emissions Reduction Program (TERP), and we hope to see a sizable portion of those moneys directed to such a successful public health and clean air endeavor.”

“The possibility of these two programs working in conjunction is the commitment we need to clean up our air and address climate change. We have to electrify our transportation system as quickly as possible. And given that air pollution has disproportionate health effects on children, there is no better place to kickstart that transition than with school buses. The Clean School Bus Act will help school districts get the resources they need to ensure that every child has healthy air to breathe and a safe ride to school.”

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U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.

TexPIRG is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.

News Release | TexPIRG | Consumer Protection

TexPIRG: Consumers Do Well in Texas Legislature

The legislative session adjourned on Monday, with consumers and the public interest claiming some big victories including the end of surprise medical bills, said the consumer group TexPIRG on Tuesday.

Surprise medical bills will no longer affect consumers in Texas with a non-federal insurance plan after bipartisan work on Senator Hancock’s SB1264. The bill expands on a Texas Department of Insurance program that sends eligible surprise medical bills to an arbitration process between the insurance company and the healthcare provider. Before, consumers had to be aware of their eligibility and submit a request, but with the update, consumers will no longer even receive the surprise medical bill in the first place, significantly increasing utilization.    

The rest of the good news:

  • A bill by Representative Oliverson will prevent hidden fees at freestanding emergency rooms, ending a prominent consumer abuse.

  • Telemarketers won’t be able to “spoof” their calls anymore, thanks to Representative Leman’s HB1992. Spoofing is the practice where robocallers make their calls appear as if they originate from the same area code as the individual they are calling.

  • The Lower Colorado River Authority will be more transparent after TexPIRG and others called for changes as part of legislation to reauthorize the agency.

  • SB9, a bill that would reduce voter participation by making it harder to register and vote, was not passed. The bill was authored by Republic Senator Hughes.

  • HB3040, authored by Representative Hunter, will study how we select our judges, including whether or not elections or appointments will lead to more qualified, representative judicial nominees.

  • None of the many bills designed to block construction of a high-speed bullet train from Houston to Dallas passed, continuing the possibility of reduced congestion on I45 and lower transportation-related air emissions.

  • Bills to increase transparency in government spending, such as Representative Canales’ HB81, which requires disclosure of public spending on entertainment events, sometimes referred to as the Enrique Iglesias bill, after public spending on a concert by that artist received significant public criticism for the expenditure amount being hidden from the taxpayer.

“We were pleased with how the legislative session turned out, especially with the amount of transparency and healthcare-related bills that passed,” said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG’s Director. “Consumers benefit from more transparency, in government, businesses, and markets, and we saw a concerted effort to pursue that goal.”

“Ending surprise medical bills for a large portion of Texas consumers and enacting one of the strongest arbitration programs in the country will serve healthcare consumers well in the coming years,” continued Scoggin.

News Release | TexPIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Texas receives "D" grade for Volkswagen settlement spending plan

When it comes to clean transportation, Texas got a “D” for underutilizing funds from Volkswagen’s nearly $3 billion settlement with federal authorities, according to a new report card from U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research & Policy Center.

After Volkswagen was caught three years ago violating emissions standards in 590,000 cars marketed as “clean diesel,” the German automaker agreed to create an “Environmental Mitigation Trust” to be distributed across all 50 states (along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Texas got its grade because the funds were made available for dirty fuels like compressed fracked gas, with no extra decision criteria for zero emissions vehicles.

“The Volkswagen settlement gave Texas the opportunity to make huge strides in the essential transition to a cleaner and healthier electric transportation system,” Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Director said. “It’s deeply disappointing that there’s a lot of good is coming out of how some states are spending this money -- but we are not going nearly far enough.”

Texas placed near the bottom of states overall. The report gave only 15 states a C or better for money-spending policies that increase access to electric vehicle charging and bolster electric school and transit bus fleets. Fourteen states, along with Puerto Rico, received a failing score.

Report | TexPIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Blueprint for Tomorrow

INFRASTRUCTURE IS AT THE HEART of America’s greatest challenges. The infrastructure investments made by generations past have contributed to improved health and welfare, and to the nation’s unparalleled economic prosperity. But the infrastructure decisions of the past have also cast a long shadow, leaving America to deal with the burden of lead water pipes that jeopardize our children’s health, fossil fuel pipelines that contribute to global warming, and transportation and solid waste infrastructure that no longer serve today’s needs.

It is time for a bold, new vision for federal infrastructure policy – one that focuses attention on the 21st century’s toughest challenges, from ensuring safe drinking water for all Americans to addressing global warming, which threatens to change American life as we know it. The nation’s infrastructure policy is an opportunity to undertake the challenge of building a better world.

It is also time for a new approach to federal investment in infrastructure – one that’s less focused on creating ribbon-cutting opportunities and maximizing the number of jobs and is more attentive to getting the most benefit out of every dollar spent.

By focusing federal policy on unleashing high-value investments in critical areas – and resisting the temptation to spend resources on counterproductive boondoggle projects – the Trump administration and Congress can leave a lasting infrastructure legacy that will be remembered by future generations.

News Release | TexPIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Report: Roadmap for a stronger, more sustainable American infrastructure

Three years after candidates from both parties made infrastructure a key presidential campaign issue, it’s finally the long-awaited “infrastructure week.” Democratic congressional leaders and the White House announced two weeks ago that they would commit $2 trillion to the cause. But a new report from U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group cautions that before allocating that money, our elected officials need to determine which investments will alleviate the most dire problems America faces as a result of crumbling or outdated infrastructure -- climate change, pollution and threats to public safety.

“Deciding how much to spend before deciding what to spend it on puts the cart before the horse,” said Andre Delattre, senior vice president for program at The Public Interest Network, which includes the three groups that wrote the report. “If Congress and the Trump administration avoid the temptation to spend indiscriminately and instead develop a bold new infrastructure vision, we have the opportunity to give our children and grandchildren a stronger, healthier and more sustainable future.”

News Release | TexPIRG | Transportation

Capital Metro makes Earth Day Announcement

Today, Capital Metro announced its plan to build a new, first of its kind, electric bus charging facility. The new facility, stationed off Burnet at the transit agencies’ northern depot, will be capable of charging over 200 buses, roughly half of the current size of the fleet.

Advocates like the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG) and the Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance (TxETRA) applauded the move.

“What an exciting Earth Day announcement,” said Bay Scoggin, TexPIRG Director. “Investing in infrastructure at this scale shows the deep commitment that Cap Metro has for a sustainable transportation future. Cleaner, healthier, and money-saving, electric buses are a win-win-win for the transit agency and everyone in the Austin metro area.”

Report | TexPIRG | Public Health

Get the Lead Out

Over the past five years, the tragedy of Flint, Michigan has stunned the nation. We watched the drinking water of an entire city become contaminated with lead. And, we know now that this toxic threat extends well beyond Flint to communities across the country.

In fact, test results now show that lead is even contaminating drinking water in schools and pre-schools — flowing from thousands of fountains and faucets where our kids drink water every day.

In all likelihood, the confirmed cases of lead in schools’ water are just the tip of the iceberg. Most schools have at least some lead in their pipes, plumbing, or fixtures. And where there is lead, there is risk of contamination.1

The health threat of lead in schools’ water deserves immediate attention from state and local policymakers for two reasons. First, lead is highly toxic and especially damaging to children — impairing how they learn, grow, and behave. So, we ought to be particularly vigilant against this health threat at schools and pre-schools, where our children spend their days learning and playing.

Second, current regulations are too weak to protect our children from lead-laden water at school. Federal rules only apply to the roughly ten percent of schools and pre-schools that are considered to be their own Public Water Systems.2 At schools not considered to be a Public Water System, there is no federal rule protecting kids from exposure to lead in schools’ drinking water. While the latest edition of the EPA’s 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools and Child Care Centers recommends that schools reduce lead to the “lowest possible concentration,” unless a state’s law directs schools to adhere to it, this guidance is not enforceable.3 Moreover, even when federal rules do apply to a school, they only require remediation when testing confirms lead concentrations in excess of 15 parts per billion at ten percent or more of taps sampled, even though medical and public health experts agree that there is no safe level of lead for our children.4 The error of this approach is compounded by the fact that testing, even when properly done, often fails to detect maximum lead levels in water coming out of the tap.

Unfortunately, so far, most states are failing to protect children from lead in schools’ drinking water. Our review of 32 states’ laws and regulations finds:

Several states, including Texas, have no requirements for schools and pre-schools to address the threat of lead in drinking water.

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