After three years, two election cycles and 11 extensions, Congress has finally reauthorized the federal transportation bill, funding highways and transit over the next six years to the tune of $286.4 billion. SAFETEA-LU is a mixed bag for the environment overall, but includes some important milestones for America’s wildlife.
After much debate, Congress included provisions to include wildlife conservation in transportation planning. Currently, highway projects are planned, funded and designed before considering the potential impacts to wildlife and habitat. Often, this can lead to expensive delays, lawsuits and unnecessary loss of habitat. Under new law, transportation planners will consider habitat locations to avoid building roads in these sensitive areas, concentrating more on improving existing roads and highways. Congress also commissioned a comprehensive study on the causes and impacts of wildlife-vehicle collisions and fully funded the program that provides funding for wildlife passages.
"The conservation of our nation's precious wildlife will now be part and parcel of highway planning, which should lead to increased efficiencies in road building, savings to the American taxpayer and the preservation of critical wildlife habitat," said U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee and member of the House Transportation Committee who was an advocate of the provisions. "The various groups who fought for these measures, such as Defenders, are to be commended for what has been achieved."
“This is historic,” said Trisha White, director of Defenders’ Habitat & Highways Campaign. “For the first time ever, wildlife will be one of the first things considered when building roads, instead of the last.”
Unfortunately, the bill also includes significant setbacks:
Significantly weakened the National Environmental Policy Act;
Funding for highway building increased by one-third; and
$20 billion-plus in pork projects, many with serious implications for wildlife, such as a $200 million bridge that would impact feeding grounds of the rare Beluga whale.
“We may have taken one step forward and one step back,” said White. “Hopefully transportation agencies will take full advantage of the positives rather than the negatives. We now have the information and tools to do solid wildlife conservation while maintaining a world-class transportation system. There’s simply no excuse to do less.”