Old data to stay in road plans

Pollution issue ignored

decision is denounced

August 25, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Ignoring evidence that pollution in Greater Baltimore is over federal limits, regional planners decided yesterday to press forward with road projects based on outdated 1990 traffic data.

If approved by federal officials, the move would erase the threat of delays for several important road projects -- including those for the new Arundel Mills shopping mall off Route 100 and the General Motors Corp. plant under construction in White Marsh.

But citizen groups denounced the planners' decision as unethical.

"This raises national air quality issues that we're not going to ignore," said Michael Replogle of the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund.

Jamie Kendrick of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association said: "This was about doing the right thing morally, and the committee chose not to do it."

In a letter to federal highway officials, the federal Environmental Protection Agency also signaled its displeasure.

"Use of anything other than the most recent ... data would receive considerable public criticism, invite possible adverse comment, and would almost certainly be challenged in court," EPA regional administrator W. Michael McCabe wrote.

The decision "could actually delay rather than expedite" future projects, he added.

Baltimore has one of the worst ozone pollution problems in the nation, and this will make it worse, said critics. "It reflects the type of planning process that has gotten us into this trouble," said Replogle.

But members of the Transportation Steering Committee, a powerful group of elected officials that decides regional road projects, defended the decision as one that required a delicate balance between environmental considerations and economic development.

The transportation committee is made up of the top elected officials from Baltimore, Annapolis and five surrounding counties.

"The tough decision is how to weigh environmental and transportation needs in a way that enhances the quality of life," said Marsha J. Kaiser, director of planning and development for the Maryland Department of Transportation. "In reality, we're talking about jobs for the region in a region that needs it."

The committee decided to continue using 1990 traffic data so Baltimore could stay within federal emissions limits on paper and continue to qualify for road projects.

1996 data most up-to-date

A more current analysis of air quality based on 1996 data revealed recently an increase in vehicles and pollution that six years ago pushed the region out of compliance with federal standards. During that period, the number of cars in the region grew by 8 percent. The number of sport utility vehicles, which are under more lax emissions requirements, almost doubled.

The result: far more ozone-producing emissions than planners had realized. The data said 3 to 15 tons of pollutants from vehicles are being released each day beyond the 150-ton maximum.

If formally submitted with requests for federal approval of road projects, the new analysis would make Baltimore vulnerable to losing federal highway funds until planners find ways to limit traffic emissions. That seemed too great a risk, committee members said.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey said delaying long-planned road projects in his county "would be a problem."

A spokeswoman for Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger said the executive felt it made no sense to use 1996 data when the region's air quality plan is based on 1990 figures. "There's a need for consistency," said Elise Armacost.

The decision left developers of Mills Corp., which is building the Arundel Mills shopping mall, "relieved," said Katharyn Dahl, a company lawyer.

Kaiser said other regions are relying on 1990 data to make requests for road money to the Federal Highway Administration.

Committee members said two state agencies -- the Department of Environment and Department of Transportation -- had advised them that they could submit the 1990 data without trouble. But that might be resolved in court.

A spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the officials met privately last weekend at the Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City and decided to endorse the 1990 data. Schmoke, who learned of that decision late Monday night, left before the weekend vote.

None of the elected officials attended yesterday's meeting, instead sending representatives to vote for them. The proposal was approved without discussion.

Possible remedies

A direct attack on the region's pollution problem is perhaps a year off, said committee members. The potential remedies -- to be incorporated into a new regional air quality plan in coming months -- are expected to include new emissions limits on utilities, although those limits have yet to be approved by the General Assembly.

The prospect for another solution -- limiting pollutants that drift into Maryland from other states -- is stuck in a court fight.

How the committee could try to reduce pollution levels from traffic remains unclear, however. But members believe a number of programs, including tougher vehicle inspection programs for diesel trucks and tax credits for employers who pay for employee transit tickets, would help.

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 8/25/99

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