Clean Air Carolina Hosts Air Quality Roundtable with Regional Leaders

Oct 5, 2009

For the last several decades summertime in the Carolina Piedmont has meant ripe, juicy peaches, pink flowering crepe myrtles and high ozone levels. While Mother Nature has given us a break on the weather this summer and “code orange” days have been few, the Charlotte metro region still has much to do to ensure residents are breathing healthy air year round.

Clean Air Carolina and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Chair Jennifer Roberts convened a roundtable discussion of regional business, government, environmental and healthcare leaders on August 24 to discuss solutions to our air quality problems and learn from Atlanta’s experience dealing with similar issues in the 1990’s.

David Farren, director of the transportation program at the Southern Environmental Law Center, was guest speaker at the two-hour roundtable meeting. David has over 15 years of legal and policy expertise in linking air quality planning with transportation and land use planning. Starting in the mid-1990s he was involved in efforts in Atlanta to address its serious transportation-related air quality issues that led to a cut-off of federal transportation funds under the Clean Air Act. David shared insights from his Atlanta experience with community leaders that are relevant to the growth challenges and choices now facing the greater Charlotte region. Those present expressed a range of concerns from losing highway funding to the health care costs associated with dirty air. The group acknowledged this is the beginning a long term process to balance the economic and environmental needs of a growing region.

Clean, Healthy Air: How Do We Get Here?
An Interview with David Farren, Senior Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center

Q. What can we learn from Atlanta’s experience with ozone nonattainment issues?

A. The first lesson is that beltways are not always the best answer for moving traffic. Atlanta found that an approach that combined better coordinated land use and transportation planning with strengthening the existing road network was the best option for improving air quality and congestion and at less cost to the taxpayers than the proposed beltway. Another lesson is the connection between a decrease in ozone levels and a decrease in pediatric asthma acute care visits. During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, local leaders increased transit options and encouraged citizens to limit driving. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that as a result, peak weekday morning traffic counts dropped 22.5%, peak daily ozone concentrations decreased 27.9%, and acute care and hospital visits for children with asthma decreased 41.6%.

Q. Hasn’t our air quality been improving?

A. Even though air quality in the Charlotte metro area has improved somewhat over the last decade, ozone levels are still too high to meet the federal health-based standard set in 1997. Research continues to show strong correlations
between dirty air and respiratory and cardiovascular disease, thus standards continue to become more stringent. The EPA adopted a new ozone standard in 2008 and the Obama Administration is considering strengthening the standard once again. This is a long-term problem that will take many years to address and one in which new approaches are needed.

Q. What can we do as a region to ensure healthy air for our residents over the long-term?

A. With transportation emissions contributing over 50% to our ozone problem, a new approach to transportation policy is needed. For an economically and environmentally sustainable future, we must give up on the old notion that we can simply pave our way out of our problems by building more and more roads. The  I-85/I-40 corridor between Charlotte and the Triangle is part of the emerging Piedmont Atlantic “mega-region,” the fastest growing region in the country. Leadership is needed now by all sectors to collaborate on regional growth and transportation planning so we can provide greater mobility options for residents which result in less air pollution.

Q. What can individuals do to ensure state and local officials are taking a long-term approach for better air quality?

A. There are a number of policy initiatives that individuals can advocate for at the local and state levels that promote increased use of public transit, bike and pedestrian options and reform of North Carolina’s outdated Highway Trust Fund law and Equity Formula. The state’s transportation policies have contributed to urban sprawl and congestion on our roadways. Getting involved with groups like Clean Air Carolina which are actively seeking public policy changes is an important way for citizens to play a role in improving air quality.