Major developments on the air quality front have been a hot topic over the past week, as the US Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed new revisions to a federal air quality standard designed to protect the public from excessive exposure to ground-level ozone. The review, which is part of the Clean Air Act, is happening more than a year ahead of schedule. So, how should we take this news in Georgia, where roughly one in five counties fails to meet the current standard?
First, there are many things going right in Georgia with respect to ground-level ozone and air quality. Last year, metro Atlanta registered no Code Red days (unhealthy for all) during what was an uncharacteristically mild smog season. And we have not seen a Code Purple day (hazardous) in several years. A combination of factors have driven this positive change in our state, like scrubbers at coal-fired power plants, special blend gasoline that emits less pollution, commute options programs like the ones offered by The Clean Air Campaign and its partners, more efficient vehicles, etc.
Second, what is clear is that the more research that becomes available from the health and science communities, the stronger the connection between exposure to even small amounts of ground-level ozone and serious public health hazards. The EPA reviewed some 1,700 scientific studies prior to introducing the most recent standard change in March 2008, which ratcheted the threshold down. Today, the discussion around the latest proposed revision is that even more stringent regulations are needed to protect public health.
While it's too soon in the process to know precisely where the new threshold will fall, what is certain is that more Georgia employers, municipalities, commuters and schools will be called upon to help through voluntary actions (driving less and reducing unnecessary idling, for example). There are no quick fixes to meet the current standard, let alone a more stringent standard down the road -- especially in a state where population growth continues to place heavy demand on energy and transportation output. But Georgia is in better position than many other states that will face the challenge of meeting stricter standards because we have programs, incentives and support -- unique to Georgia and already up and running in major metropolitan areas -- that can point us in the right direction.
Happy New Year and welcome to the next decade. Coming off an economic meltdown in 2009 on par with the Great Depression, it has been a lean year for good news in Georgia. Let’s gear up for a fresh start.
What's in store for 2010 on the transportation and air quality front? Lots of unfinished business on transportation, and what will likely be new and tougher regulations on air quality, including first-ever regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.
Consider this a preview of coming attractions of what we're watching for in policymaking circles over the next 12 months:
Georgia Transportation Funding
Georgia policymakers have been stuck in what seems like an endless loop of discussion on how to fund transportation in our state without ever moving to a conclusion. A lot has been said on the subject but not much has gotten done. Last session there were significant changes made within GDOT, and its new Planning Director just released this report as a vision for transportation infrastructure across the state for the next 2-3 three decades. The report leverages the work of McKinsey last year and its IT3 findings last year. It’s long (77 pp), but worth a read, at least the Executive Summary.
There are lots of ideas on the table to get Georgia moving: a statewide master list of projects and a commitment to transit, but these projects need funding in order to become real. And the State has been under-investing on transportation for decades, compared to its peers. As the report points out, at current levels of funding, “over the next 20 years, congestion costs across all of Georgia’s metro areas will increase dramatically, and many transit services will be reduced or eliminated due to lack of operating funds. In metro Atlanta, congestion costs per person will double.”
What is needed is new funding, “equivalent to a 1 percent sales tax statewide, in addition to a robust approach to tolls.” Will this be the year that transportation funding legislation clears the gauntlet and the voters will be allowed to decide the issue? We’ll see. For many, “election year” and “new taxes” don’t necessarily go together.
Federal Transportation Funding Reauthorization
The federal funding mechanism for how we fund transportation has been broken for years. The Federal Highway Trust fund is spitting foam, paying out more than it is taking in with gas tax revenues – hardly a winning combination. This funding was scheduled to be reexamined this past fall, but given all the lofty issues in play in Washington, Congress applied a few band-aids and put it on the shelf until 2010. When it is revisited, what will the next chapter in our nation's transportation policy look like? How do we fund transportation beyond the motor fuel tax? Mileage-based fees? How can we wring more efficiency out of the systems we already have?
Air Quality Standards … the Sequel
Something noteworthy happened last summer: the EPA reopened review of federal air quality standards for ground-level ozone (set in early-2008) years ahead of schedule. Several areas in Georgia failed to meet the standard before it was placed on hold, which has bought more time to make improvements. A new standard will be set by the feds, rooted in health and science studies about the effects of ground-level ozone exposure on public welfare. My money is on the new standard being tougher than the previous one. The proposal comes out in the next couple of weeks, and the EPA can expect lots of comments and lawsuits. Meanwhile, air quality standards for an unprecedented number of other pollutants are now in the process of being tightened (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, lead, toxics). But the real game changer is the fact that EPA is poised to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from millions of stationary and mobile sources never before regulated … potentially the most sweeping environmental regulation in history.
2010 holds the promise of a year of big changes that affect the future course on transportation and air quality. Much more to come…