Environmental Battle - New Roads vs. Clean Air

Atlanta's debate over clean-air standards and road building has national implications.

For many, to live in Atlanta is to drive a sports utility vehicle, own a cell phone, and spend a good two hours a day commuting.

So it's little surprise that when the Environmental Protection Agency began making a fuss about road building in Georgia, Atlantans fussed back.

What is surprising is that the brouhaha over whether a handful of new highways can go forward as planned has spiraled all the way to the White House. Now, three federal agencies are wrangling over where and when Georgia can pour its asphalt.

A decision is expected by late this week, and Atlantans won't be the only ones tuning in. The compromise reached by the White House Council on Environmental Quality is likely to set a precedent for places as far-flung as Las Vegas, Houston, and Charlotte, N.C. - all cities that have come of age in the era of the automobile and are struggling to keep their rapid growth from producing too much pollution.

"Atlanta is the first of several metro areas facing a similar set of circumstances, where their current transportation plans spur excessive growth sufficient to threaten public health," says Michael Replogle, transportation director for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington. "But authorities haven't taken any steps to come up with alternatives," says Mr. Replogle.

The crux of the situation is this: Under more stringent Clean Air Act regulations put in place in 1990, Atlanta's air is too dirty. To force the city to reduce its pollutants, the federal government mandated that no new roads be planned after Dec. 31, 1997. Road planning can begin again once metro officials agree upon a transportation blueprint that will improve - not further damage - the city's air quality.

There is one exception to the ban on new roads: Any project already on the drawing board can be "grandfathered" in, or continued as scheduled because its planning occurred before the new restrictions were put in place. But this is where things get tricky.

Unique case

In Atlanta's case, the regional EPA has charged that the state's Department of Transportation is not acting in the spirit of the exemption. The Georgia DOT, according to local environmentalists, is pushing every road project to be grandfathered, no matter how far it is in its planning stages.

Indeed, the state DOT has submitted 90 projects to be exempted from the ban and 84 of them have been approved. At this pace, Georgia could keep building new roads, with no plan to clean up car emissions, well into the next decade, estimates show.

"The Georgia DOT submitted a very large list for grandfathering, and that obviously raised some concern on our parts," says Stanley Meiburg, EPA deputy director for the Southeast region.

But there may be a political dimension to this fight. Republican lawmakers claim that Georgia is unfairly being made into an example for a White House that's trying to take a stronger stand on the environment.

To Rep. Mac Collins (R) of Georgia, forbidding projects that met the basic criteria from being grandfathered is an instance of the federal government acting inflexibly and striving for a symbolic victory at the expense of his state's well-being.

"All of the transportation plans are very long-term projects, so if you stop everything, congestion is just going to get worse and eventually become an utter nightmare," says a spokesman for Representative Collins.

Planning for the future

Those close to decisionmakers say the EPA is not likely to back down on its opposition of the final six projects that have been submitted for exemption.

"To allow them to plan for these roads would create a backlog," says the EPA's Mr. Mieburg. "It would allow them to go even further without consideration of the damage they are doing."

But whatever the outcome, observers say, this struggle represents a turning point in how Atlanta, and a number of other cities, will begin planning for their future growth.

"The Clean Air Act is what's forcing the whole debate," says Jim Chapman of Georgians for Transportation Alternatives.

"But what's really happening is that cities are learning how to build public support for changing how they grow. This is a real interesting time to be in Atlanta with respect to the attention being paid to transportation planning."

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