False Start 

The members of a government transportation panel came up with some wrong answers.

Two weekends ago, at the Millington City Hall, I witnessed first-hand many of our elected officials on the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and local industry leaders repeatedly call for the streamlining or outright elimination of environmental regulations in the pursuit of perceived progress.

My congressman, Stephen Fincher (R-TN, 8th District), hosted the visit by committee chairman, Republican congressman John Mica of Florida, who has recently traveled the country to gather input. But the panel I witnessed consisted primarily of representatives from the asphalt, concrete, and construction industries, along with state and local government organizations that would profit from deregulation. Is there really any surprise that these folks want to reduce regulations that protect the environment?

Surely this is not an accurate representation of the people. As for public participation, Fincher's press release, in advance of the panel, had stated it this way: "The meeting is open to the public to come listen to the discussion among industry and government roundtable participants ... ."

Listen. Is this what our representative government has become — one in which the public is invited to "listen" to government and industry conspiring to undo bipartisan regulations of the past four decades? Are we to sit idly by as those who would profit from the demise of our environment move forward? I say no!

We must take a stand and demand that we move forward in a responsible way. We must ensure that we protect our environment and find sound ways to improve transportation for the 21st century.

But Congressman Jimmy Duncan (R-TN, 2nd District), a 23-year veteran of the Transportation Committee, blamed USA Today's projected $5-a-gallon gasoline prices by the summer peak on environmentalists. As he put it, "We can't let the environmental rascals drive the gas prices to $5 a gallon or worse."

The United States enjoys some of the lowest prices for gasoline among any developed nation. The increases in price are not due to environmental regulation but to global political instability and increased demand by China and India. At a time when global production is declining, demand is increasing, and, barring a global economic collapse, prices will likely continue to increase in the coming decades. Last year, for the first time, GM sold more vehicles in China than in the United States. This is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

As explained by one panelist in Millington, state senator Jim Tracy (R-TN, 16th District), chair of the Tennessee Senate's transportation committee, Tennessee taxes gasoline at a 21.3 cents per gallon rate. A common opinion among the panelists, and one that I share, concerned the need to increase use taxes. 

They desire the increased taxes to build more highways. I support the increase with hopes that it will modify behavior. We need to recognize that we face new challenges and that simply building more roads will not solve current and future problems.

We need viable alternatives to individuals commuting to work, one person per car. Our nation lags the developed world in high-speed rail. Members of the panel sang the praises of freight rail but largely rejected passenger rail. We need to embrace local light rail and high-speed long-distance rail projects.

Interestingly, Chairman Mica arrived late for the hearing due to a flat tire. He recalled his recent travel woes: storms that forced his driver to pull to the side of the road, a flight cancellation, and, of course, the flat tire. Had modern rail services been available, all of these issues could have been avoided.

Finally, I commend Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee's 9th District for not joining the chorus. He was the sole panel member who did not deride environmentalists or environmental regulations. Cohen is an unfaltering supporter of our environment and related concerns, earning a perfect score of 100 on the latest published scorecard by the League of Conservation Voters.

Other Tennessee representatives scored as follows: Phil Roe (R-1st District), 4; Duncan, 4; Chuck Fleischmann (R-3rd), 8; Scott DesJarlais (R-4th), 0; Jim Cooper (D-5th), 92; Diane Black (R-6th), 4; Marsha Blackburn (R-7th), 4; and Fincher, 8. 

Kevin W. Routon, of Atoka, is chair of the Chickasaw Group, Tennessee Sierra Club.

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