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Bad air days 

Road-building schemes ignore Atlanta's air pollution problems

There's one surefire way to knock down to size Atlanta's twin terrors of air pollution.

"If we take cars off the road, it will end up lowering both," says Susan Zimmer-Dauphinee, who's in charge of measuring both ozone smog and particulate pollution for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Why then do the state's top officials always seem to go ga-ga over schemes that would provide billions of dollars for roads, and not a penny for transit and other alternatives?

"What you see are lawmakers turning their decision-making powers over to the road lobby," says Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring. With so much money wrapped up in highway-building interests, roads-only proposals "end up getting a lot more credulous reception than they deserve."

It's no surprise then that state Transportation Board Chairman Mike Evans had nothing but high praise earlier this month for a $25-billion-plus roads-only plan put forth by the libertarian Reason Foundation and the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Or that state House Transportation Committee member Vance Smith provided a welcome ear when the road-builder-dominated Georgians for Better Transportation proposed an apparent tax increase -- under which a 1 percent sales tax hike would replace the gas tax -- to pay for car-and-truck-oriented projects.

The pro-highway crowd is pitching such prescriptions as its antidote to traffic congestion. Those who support a more balanced approach point out that more roads inevitably bring more traffic.

But limiting the whole transportation debate to the issue of traffic congestion ignores what may be the greater problem: air pollution. Public health experts say hundreds to thousands of metro Atlantans die prematurely from problems related to the bad air, and that thousands more suffer such maladies as asthma and lung disease.

The 2006 ozone-smog season in Atlanta was the worst it's been in four years. During this summer's smog season, the metro area's air failed to meet federal ozone standards on 30 separate days, according to the Georgia EPD. Atlanta also is falling short on federal standards governing particulate pollution -- tiny suspended granules can be extremely harmful to breathe.

Environmental leaders acknowledge that ozone smog has improved since the federal government got so fed up that it cut off highway-building grants to the region in the late 1990s. "These numbers pale in comparison to where we were in 1999," says Mike Halicki of the Clean Air Campaign, a nonprofit organization that encourages voluntary efforts to improve air quality.

But Halicki notes that the region continues to merely "tread water" when it comes to cutting emissions from cars and trucks. Most progress over the last decade on Atlanta's ozone-smog front was the result of tougher emissions standards for Georgia Power's coal-fired plants.

Experts note that if metro Atlanta gets carried away with asphalt projects and fails to give people ways to get around with less pollution, the twin terrors could grow bigger. Then, it's conceivable that the feds could pull funding again.

That, says state Rep. Jill Chambers, who chairs the House Committee on MARTA, ought to provide a strong incentive for lawmakers to devise real solutions to traffic problems -- rather than simply to kowtow to special interests.

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