Old traffic numbers could stall new roads

Air pollution endangers federal highway funds

August 22, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Baltimore and its nearby counties are flunking federal clean-air rules, thereby threatening to stall millions of dollars for highway projects -- including roads for the state's largest new retail complex.

Until recently, the region appeared to be in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. But it turns out that's because state and regional planners have been relying on misleading 1990 motor vehicle data to measure prospective traffic pollution and gain approval for road projects.

Those outdated traffic figures do not reflect the region's growing number of vehicles, particularly higher-polluting sport utility vehicles, or that in 1990, motorists drove newer cars.

The latest traffic data -- from 1996 -- lead to much different conclusions: On a typical weekday, cars and trucks are spewing 3 to 15 tons of ozone-producing chemicals into the air beyond the maximum 150 tons they are allowed by federal regulations.

Baltimore has longbeen recognized as having one of the worst ozone-pollution problems in the country. About 755 tons of ozone-producing chemicals are released into the region every day from all sources.

Until the traffic data problem is sorted out -- which could take months -- millions in federal transportation funds are likely to remain on hold in Washington.

Road projects supported by that money could be stalled.

And developments that need those roads -- such as the 200-store Arundel Mills shopping center under construction on Route 100 near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Anne Arundel County -- could be delayed.

State officials are devising a new emissions "budget" for the region. In it, they say, new programs to curb emissions from other sources, including utility companies, could be offered to offset the rise in vehicle emissions.

In the meantime, for regional transportation plans, exceeding the Clean Air Act standards means havoc.

"We think this is a pretty big deal," said Lee Epstein of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"This is like the college kid who spent his time partying instead of studying and just learned he can't graduate. They've got a lot of work to do," said Epstein.

Said Marsha J. Kaiser, director of planning and evaluation for the Maryland Department of Transportation: "It is serious. Where it hurts is anything not [yet] in the planning process."

That includes a major Beltway-widening project between Route 97 and Route 10, as well as the roads for Arundel Mills, which is expected to draw 25,000 to 50,000 vehicles on Saturdays.

The mall is to open a year from this Thanksgiving. Its developer, Mills Corp. of Alexandria, Va., said it could only wait to see what happens.

Critics say the current trouble was predictable.

"This is not a matter of people being surprised out of the blue by these numbers," said Michael Replogle of the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund.

"This is a group of bureaucrats who are trying to see if they can cheat the system one more time to approve new road projects."

The use of outdated numbers illustrates a breakdown at the region's little-known but powerful Transportation Steering Committee -- a breakdown that citizen groups say they complained about more than a year ago.

At the time, the regional transportation committee's top administrator warned that road projects were approaching the limits of the Clean Air Act, according to Replogle, who attended the meeting.

Replogle challenged the use of the old figures then. But that data gave committee members a way to easily comply with the Clean Air Act and put off tough decisions, he said.

The committee's administrator -- Harvey Bloom of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council -- said he doesn't recall predicting clean-air problems, "but I wouldn't swear to it."

"I recognize that it looks somewhat questionable," he said. "I'm not going to tell you that privately somebody from the [committee] hasn't said we need to use more recent numbers."

The emissions debacle is the most recent problem confronting the transportation committee, a group of top elected officials from the Baltimore area charged with deciding on transportation projects. The committee already is under fire from two federal agencies for the way it does business.

Among the complaints is that committee members -- including Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and top elected officials from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties -- primarily serve as figureheads, rarely attending meetings and delegating the work to mid-level planners.

Members not informed

Most of the members were at the Maryland Association of Counties meeting in Ocean City last week and said they had not been fully briefed on the data problem.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey said he had heard that four highway projects in his jurisdiction were at risk. He said they included projects in Fulton and along Routes 100 and 32.

The project that is most vulnerable appears to be roadwork to feed the Arundel Mills mall.

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