Air Pollution
Air Pollution – Southeast Cities Lead The Nation In Air Pollution

Air Pollution – Southeast Cities Lead The Nation In Air Pollution

Cities in the Southeast are first in the nation for air pollution from vehicles, according to a report released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. With the U.S. House of Representatives poised to consider what likely will be a more than $300 billion transportation bill, Nashville, Atlanta, Greensboro, and Raleigh lead the nation for the most air pollution from cars and trucks, per capita, among large cities.

More Highways, More Pollution finds that building new roads will do little to alleviate traffic congestion in the long run and likely will exacerbate already severe air pollution problems in cities across the country. Cities with the most highways tend to have the worst air pollution from cars and trucks, according to the report. Nashville, which is first in the nation for air pollution from vehicles, ranks second for the most highway capacity and third for the most miles driven, per capita, among large cities. In 2003, Nashville received an "F" grade from the American Lung Association for its air quality.

"Roads and air pollution go hand-in-hand," said U.S. PIRG Clean Air Advocate Emily Figdor, "and air pollution is linked to asthma attacks, lung cancer, heart disease, and early deaths."

Half of all Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone smog. Air pollution contributes to asthma attacks, lung cancer, heart disease, and tens of thousands of premature deaths each year. While vehicles coming off today's assembly lines are 80 to 99 percent cleaner per mile than those of the 1960s, cars and trucks remain a leading source of air pollution because of the dramatic increase in driving. From 1970 to 2002, the number of vehicle-miles traveled in urban areas tripled from 570 billion to 1.73 trillion miles. In Nashville, people drive a total of 23,300 miles every day, or 35 miles per resident per day.

More Highways, More Pollution analyzes Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data on highway capacity and vehicle emissions for 314 metropolitan areas in 1999, the most recent year for which complete data are available. Key findings include the following:

* Expansion of America's highway network has helped fuel the increase in driving. Building new roads spurs vehicle travel and alters land-use patterns, creating new traffic.

* Cities with more major highway capacity per capita have higher levels of air pollution from vehicles per capita. The relationship between highways and air pollution is strongest in the nation's largest cities - those with more than one million people. Increasing highway capacity will increase air pollution, all other things being equal.

* The average large metropolitan area that expands its highway capacity by 14.6 percent - the national rate of growth in urban areas in the 1990s - could expect a 10.9 percent increase in nitrogen oxides and a 10.7 percent increase in volatile organic compounds, all other things being equal. Both pollutants contribute to the formation of smog, and many VOCs are toxic to humans.

The report's authors recommend that federal and state officials allocate a greater share of transportation resources to programs to reduce the growth in the number of cars on the road and encourage alternative modes of transportation, such as transit. In addition, the report's authors contend that federal law must continue to ensure that new highway projects do not worsen air quality in cities that violate federal health standards for ozone and other pollutants, adhering to a Clean Air Act protection known as "transportation conformity."

In February, the Senate passed a six-year, $318 billion bill (S. 1702) to reauthorize federal surface transportation programs. The bill increases federal funding for highways by 40 percent and weakens existing clean air protections - specifically transportation conformity. Among other things, the bill would allow large highway projects to be built without first considering their long-term air pollution impacts, which would result in more air pollution from sprawl and poorly planned growth. The House is scheduled to consider its transportation bill within the next few weeks.

"A powerful highway lobby is driving Congress towards weakening clean air protections, which will leave the public breathing dirtier air for a longer time," said Figdor.

The highway lobby - car companies, oil companies, developers, and others with a financial stake in road building - is pushing to weaken or even eliminate transportation conformity. These special interests poured more than $41 million into the campaign coffers of federal candidates in the most recent six-year fundraising cycle and spent more than $124 million lobbying Congress in 2001 and 2002 alone.

"The House should stand up to the highway lobby and reject any transportation bill that weakens clean air protections for America's children and seniors," concluded Figdor.

For other news editorials, see; indoor air polution.

Author Notes:

Nathan Coleman contributes and publishes news editorial to  Learn more about air health and purifiers, plus allergies, molds and asthma and what to do about it.

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