Driving blind

News of improvements in Atlanta's air quality is misguided

Last week we heard from all the voices that matter that after 25 years of wrestling with mind-numbing traffic congestion and seemingly chronic pollution problems, Atlanta's air finally was getting cleaner.

The AJC headline read, "Atlanta approaches clean air standard." And Gov. Sonny Perdue stated, "This is excellent news for everyone living in the metropolitan Atlanta area. This proves that the state's efforts to improve air quality have been effective and citizens should be commended for their help in reaching this goal."

The hoopla was made because, for the first time in nearly three decades, air pollution in the region didn't exceed what's called the one-hour standard. That's an old federal air pollution benchmark that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had abandoned because it doesn't accurately reflect the danger that air pollution can cause to humans.

These days, the EPA goes by the eight-hour standard, because prolonged exposure to ground-level ozone causes more severe burnlike damage to human lungs than hour-long spikes in ozone.

What's more, Georgia Tech atmospheric studies suggest that Atlanta's weather patterns — and not a reduction in pollution — are mainly responsible for the miniscule improvements in Atlanta's air quality. But officials from the governor on down slapped themselves on the back and celebrated a job well done.

The reality of Atlanta's air quality is much more grim. And so is the latest proposal for solving Atlanta's air and traffic problems.

Earlier this year, the EPA added seven metro Atlanta counties to the list of counties out of compliance with the eight-hour standard, bringing the total to 20. What's more, the day after Perdue trumpeted Atlanta's accomplishment, the Public Interest Research Group released an analysis of ozone pollution and fine particle soot pollution, which studies show is as dangerous to human lungs as second-hand cigarette smoke. So far this smog season, Atlanta's ozone levels have exceeded the EPA's eight-hour standard 37 times, making Atlanta the fourth smoggiest city in the country, the PIRG study found. That's a jump up from 2003, when Atlanta exceeded the standard 28 times and was ranked the 14th smoggiest.

"Though this is an important mile-stone in the march toward cleaning up air pollution, we should not get swept away by celebration," the Sierra Club's Colleen Kiernan says of meeting the one-hour standard.

Perhaps the worst side effect of the claim that Atlanta's air is cleaner is the complacency that may settle over transportation planners grappling with traffic congestion. And there's not much momentum there to begin with.

In December, the Atlanta Regional Commission is scheduled to vote on a $50 billion plan to guide transportation projects for the next 25 years. That plan, according to the ARC's own analysis, will do nothing to ease congestion, reduce commute times, or help in any way to get Atlanta out of its car quagmire.

The plan's biggest flaw is its heavy tilt toward building roads, which is what many transportation planners now say caused Atlanta's problems in the first place. Unfortunately, the ARC is hampered by federal rules that give roads and highways an enormous advantage over mass transit and public safety projects, such as sidewalks and bike paths. Following changes enacted by the Bush administration, the Federal Transit Administration funds 80 percent of road projects, but only 50 percent of mass transit projects. Before Dubya's changes, mass transit funding was on equal footing with roads and highways.

The funding obstacle is undermining efforts to improve congestion and air quality, according to ARC Director Charles "Chick" Krautler.

"The simple answer is, if you can get lots of cars off the road by subsidizing transit, you would have a significant impact on air quality," Krautler says. "We know our models show that we would reduce congestion, accommodate 2 million more people, and improve air quality. We simply don't have enough money to do everything that needs to be done from a transportation standpoint."

On Sept. 22, clean air advocates from the Sierra Club and Emory University protested the Bush administration changes. The protesters said the funding inequity keeps mass transit at a disadvantage and prevents the ARC and other state agencies from spending any significant money on the key weapon in metro Atlanta's battle for clean air — MARTA.

The ARC's plan does include money for MARTA's new natural gas-powered buses, rail car improvements, and a new rail card system. But none of those investments will make a big difference for a transit system that's on the verge of going broke. MARTA — the only transit agency in a major metropolitan area that does not receive operating funds from the state — is projected to finish 2004 with a budget shortfall of $54 million.

"It's not any slap at MARTA in terms of their value to the region," Krautler says. "We recognize that system is and will be the backbone for what will hopefully become a true regional transit system. Yes, I do support state funding for transit."