Balancing transportation, health


January 28, 1995|By TOM HORTON

People are outraged, says state Del. Martha S. Klima, a Baltimore County Republican who would repeal the state's controversial new plan to clean its dirty air by testing auto emissions.

"I think we all want clean air, but there's got to be a balance between the rights of citizens and the mandates of government," she told The Sun this month.

I expect that Ms. Klima, and about 20 co-sponsors of her bill, are sincere. But they need to rethink their math when it comes to calculating "balance" between rules and environmental protection.

And the legislature as a whole needs to face a broader truth: Current transportation policies lead only to more traffic congestion and doom us to cycles of ever more onerous `D regulation that alone will never deliver clean-enough air.

First, the matter of balance.

I wish life was like the car commercials, where you almost never see another vehicle -- just you and your sleek steed, rolling through nature to overlooks of crystalline air and untrammeled vistas. These are to automotive reality about the same as those ** hard-bodied, white-dentured models on the ciggy billboards are to metastatic lung cancer.

The reality is that in Maryland, about 5 million of us drive 113 million miles every day. Those cars are a lot less polluting than autos in 1950, when Maryland had about half as many residents. But each of us owns, on average, more cars and drives more miles than we did then. Car use has risen much faster than population.

It is a major reason why the Baltimore region has the nation's sixth worst air quality, and why the Washington region is 10th worst.

Population will rise another 20 percent in the next few decades. If you think driving won't rise by even more, several billion dollars of proposed highway expansions say think again.

So, the mathematics of "balance" must reckon with pollution sources that are expanding rapidly and without foreseeable limit.

Meanwhile, we cannot expand the capacity of the air to absorb pollution. Nor can we toughen the lungs of millions of residents, including an estimated 600,000 asthmatics, at real risk from current air quality.

So, it is a curious sort of balance some legislators would apply, between freedom to breathe and freedom from clean air rules; a balance that keeps shifting, always in one direction as long as more of us, each driving more, inhabit an atmosphere whose capacity is fixed.

The alternatives to such a cruel deception, if we are honest, are as follows:

More controls, such as the proposed VEIP (Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program).

A technological fix such as pollution-free fuels or cars, neither of which appears cost-effective, perfected, or politically acceptable enough to replace VEIP.

Behavioral change -- driving less through education ("Just say: TAXI!"). I make light of behavioral change only in its likelihood for being a short-term solution.

My guess is that when the dust has settled this spring, the legislature and governor will have rejected, as the bad ideas they are, bills to repeal or postpone car inspections.

Science and medicine are on the side of moving now to clean the air. Evidence is rising to link air pollution as one trigger for asthma, which afflicts and kills more people each year.

More studies are showing that pollutants such as ozone (think smog) are widely damaging to health at levels as low as .08 parts per million parts of air. The current federal standard of .12 ppm was exceeded in Maryland on 11 days last summer, but .08 was exceeded on 79 days.

Additionally, Maryland has invested about $47 million in a regional auto inspection program that is almost ready to run. The inspections, tougher than the ones Maryland has required since 1985, are far more cost-effective than other control measures; and cut air pollution more than shutting down most of the state's industrial facilities.

But all this begs a larger issue, which is that, even if VEIP proceeds, most experts think we will be back here in a decade or so, air still too dirty, another round of regulations in furious debate.

The reason? Nothing in what Maryland's environment and transportation agencies call a "comprehensive strategy" to reduce vehicle pollution seriously considers root causes -- such as how much we drive.

If you think that is too painful to consider, look at the future if we do not: In the Baltimore region in the next 20 years, according to planners, proposed highway expenditures, such as adding two lanes to the Beltway, will cost $3.7 billion, and the miles of congested highways will double. In the Washington region, congestion is projected to increase six-fold despite $7.74 billion spent on roads.

In a growth area such as ours, roads beget cars, which beget roads, and so on, toward a clogged and smogged and emissions-tested future. "It is pouring money down a black hole," says Rupert Friday, a planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which studies the links between roads, growth and environmental quality.

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