Feb. 5, 2007

Budget for Transportation Department Shortchanges Consumers

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen*

The Department of Transportation (DOT) budget that the Bush administration submitted to Congress today is inadequate, shortchanging consumers by  threatening fuel economy and cutting funding for vehicle safety.

Despite the president’s admission that America is addicted to oil, the new budget would only exacerbate the problem. The fuel economy program continues to be grossly underfunded by tens of millions of dollars a year. A White House fact sheet on the DOT budget announces plans to “reform” and “modernize” the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) car program by replacing the fair, across-the-board fleetwide average for vehicle fuel economy with a complex sliding scale that would apply a range of standards, with the effect that bigger vehicles would be held to a lower standard than others.

Congress should ignore this counterproductive approach and stick with a plan that works: raising the fuel economy standard by statute. The United States imports about 10 million barrels of oil a day, and at $50 a barrel, that’s $5 billion spent on imported oil every day. By raising CAFE requirements to 35 miles per gallon, we would save 1.1 million barrels of oil every day, or roughly $55 million each day.

While negatively impacting fuel economy, the Bush administration proposals also cut back on safety. The DOT budget requests $1.2 million less in funding for the safety performance rulemaking budget, taking it from $14 million to just $12.8 million for 2008. These funds pay for a variety of programs, including the federal motor vehicle safety standard rulemakings, the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) and fuel economy.

The cuts in the safety budget would undermine safety standards and consumers’ right to know about safety performance. Secretary Mary Peters spoke on Jan. 8 about a planned expansion to NCAP to improve consumer information and help people make better-informed choices about vehicles. It is not possible for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to effectively conduct this research on a diminished budget. Furthermore, the budget also covers motor vehicle safety standard rulemakings, including the requirement for NHTSA to issue important new and updated crashworthiness safety standards included in the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act - A Legacy for Users, which cannot be completed in any effective way with this insufficient budget. Given that there were 10,800 rollover fatalities in 2005, rulemakings regarding occupant protection in rollover crashes are vitally important for improving highway safety. The new law commands these rulemakings, but this budget undercuts the intent of the law.

* Joan Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977-1981.

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