7 Md. road plans in peril

State's failure to meet air-quality standards can delay U.S. funds

$38 million at stake

Regional committee to weigh alternatives to reach compliance

August 24, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Regional transportation officials identified $38 million in road projects yesterday that could be stalled unless the Baltimore region can quickly correct an air pollution problem that threatens to block the flow of federal highway funds here.

The list of threatened work consists of seven projects in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, including roads for the 200-store Arundel Mills shopping mall, the state's largest new retail development.

It also includes $10 million in widening work along Route 7 to feed the new General Motors Corp. plant in White Marsh, widening of part of U.S. 29 in Howard County and an $18.9 million interchange on U.S. 29 at Hopkins-Gorman Road in southern Howard.

The projects were thrown into question last week with the discovery that Baltimore and its suburbs are failing the federal Clean Air Act.

To qualify for federal funds, the region must prove that its road projects will not lead to ex cess emissions that would worsen ground-level ozone pollution. But planners discovered recently that Baltimore had stayed within federal compliance only because they had relied on outdated 1990 traffic data.

More accurate, 1996 data reflect an increase in vehicles -- particularly higher-polluting sport utility vehicles -- and show that Baltimore is exceeding its emissions limit.

The regional Transportation Steering Committee, a powerful group of local officials that decides on local road projects, will meet this morning to consider its options. Most of the choices before the committee involve delays that could extend into next spring.

Marsha J. Kaiser, a member of the committee and director of planning and evaluation for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said she did not believe the pollution-data snafu would kill any projects, unless counties chose to shelve them.

"From where I sit, I just see it as a matter of delay on when they get started," said Kaiser.

A new analysis

The air quality problem was discovered after planners, who had been using 1990 motor vehicle data for their emissions projections, recently did a new analysis with 1996 data.

The changes were striking. In those six years, the number of vehicles in the Baltimore region increased by 8 percent. Sport utility vehicles had nearly doubled to 229,465.

According to the new figures, vehicles in the region are emitting 3 to 15 tons of ozone-creating pollutants a day beyond the 150 tons currently allowed. About 755 tons of such pollutants are released into the region every day from all sources.

Baltimore has long been recognized as having one of the worst ozone-pollution problems in the country. The consequences for economic development in the cases of the Arundel Mills and the GM plant in White Marsh are of particular concern. Planners in both counties said it was not immediately clear what effect the delays might have.

"This is part of a total package," transportation committee Chairman Craig Forrest said of the roads for the White Marsh project. Construction is scheduled to begin in February. "Certainly there will be concern if the transportation infrastructure is not there to accommodate the economic development of White Marsh."

Until the committee meets, many state and county planners said yesterday that they were reluctant to predict the fallout from the problem. "Of course we're concerned about delays, but we're equally concerned about meeting the clean air rules," said Sang Ho, assistant to Howard County Executive James N. Robey.

Need for new budget

To achieve that, the state must devise a new emissions "budget," adjusting limits for vehicles, as well as for utility companies and possibly such businesses as bakeries and dry cleaners, and smaller polluters such as boats and lawn mowers.

The committee could:

Submit its request for federal approval of the road projects based on 1996 data, which would cause the region to formally exceed the clean air standards.

Submit the request using 1990 data, knowing it is misleading and guaranteeing a fight from environmentalists.

Take time to work out a new plan for curbing emissions, guaranteeing extended roadwork delays.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Department of Environment is nearing completion of a revised air quality plan and emissions budget for the state.

That plan is expected to incorporate new, tougher standards for utility companies that would lead to sharply lower rates of nitrogen oxide emissions -- one of the key components in the formation of ozone -- and offset the rise in vehicle emissions. Those rules are awaiting approval from the General Assembly.

Michael Replogle, federal transportation director of the Environmental Defense Fund, said it would be a mistake to pin the new emissions budget on rules that are not yet adopted.

He has also accused the planners of continuing to rely on the 1990 data to more easily comply with the Clean Air Act.

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