Moving target on air quality

Transportation: EPA needs to clarify rule -- and enforce it -- to make road planning predictable.

August 28, 1999

INCREASES IN auto air pollution in the Baltimore region since 1990 are disappointing, given state and federal efforts to curb harmful tailpipe emissions. Further action is needed to reduce vehicle pollutants in the region, one of the nation's worst for unhealthy smog. That includes analyzing new road proposals to assure that the traffic generated will meet federal clean air standards.

But for road projects under way, with plans, designs and land in hand, there's no reason to apply an ever-changing, ever-tougher set of standards. That would make it nearly impossible for any thruways to be built in the densely populated metro region. The expected marginal increase in air quality would not be worth the extensive public cost of abandoning the projects.

The state is going ahead with building seven new roads (in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties) that meet auto emission standards based on 1990 air quality data. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the clean air laws, has not objected to using that data, although warning of possible citizen protests and lawsuits.

Some environmental groups claim that use of more recent 1996 air quality readings would show that the planned roads violate clean air limits -- and thus would be ineligible for vital federal highway funding of more than $38 million. That means the projects would have to be dropped or drastically reconfigured.

The EPA is moving to cut pollutants from sport utility vehicles, the most popular type of motor vehicle today, which have more lax emissions limits. Cleaner-burning engines and fuels for all autos will also be required. Tougher national measures will help to curb Baltimore's air pollution. Stronger limits on nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants is another step: Utility deregulation should be no excuse for noncompliance.

Road planners need a firm database to judge projects. They shouldn't have to change course every year. EPA needs to clarify its ambiguous rule requiring "most recent" data on air quality, and ensure that all states observe it.

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