The people of Atlanta have long had a love affair with the car. Residents here drive more miles per person than any other city in the country - including Los Angeles.
The result over the years has been a buildup of smog from puffing tailpipes.
While the problem of dirty air isn't new here, and the city still doesn't sit under a skim-milk haze as do some other urban centers, Atlanta is under growing pressure from Uncle Sam to clean up its skies. It could lose federal money for road projects if it doesn't.
Urban centers from Las Vegas to Dallas are in similar predicaments, and compliance will require most to change how they develop and how residents live and work. But some say the transition could be tougher for Atlanta because of past development patterns, its lack of transportation alternatives, and its phenomenal growth rate.
"Every community impacted by the Clean Air Act has its own unique problems, but I think folks are going to watch how Atlanta deals with the situation," says Faye DiMassimo, transportation systems manager at the Atlanta office of the Federal Highway Administration. "I don't know if you'd find anywhere else in the country with the tremendous growth rate, growth potential, and the kind of driving patterns we have here."
The push to clean up Atlanta's skies came last June when federal environmental officials rejected a local transportation plan to build new roads because the plan would not meet conditions of the Clean Air Act.
Atlanta now faces a deadline: If it doesn't devise a workable plan by December showing how it will improve air quality over the next 20 years, it will lose federal money for road projects.
The issue has recently taken on a tone of urgency here and elsewhere because of even tougher clean-air standards regulating soot and smog proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in November.
The tighter standards have raised alarms and left cities scrambling for solutions that don't stifle their growth ambitions. Some, such as Salt Lake City, are planning light-rail systems. Others had taken steps before the call for stricter air-quality norms. Albuquerque, N.M., for example, is trying to encourage development of uninhabited sections of the city instead of creating more sprawl in outlying areas.
In Atlanta, efforts to comply with the Clean Air Act have moved at a slower pace. "There's been a traditional reliance on solving a congestion problem with a new or wider road and a general reluctance to look at alternatives to highway construction and expansion," says Eric Maurer, environmental engineer with the EPA in the Southeast region.
Over the years Atlanta has developed at a frenzied pace, like many cities building more and more outward into the suburbs. Exacerbating that growth pattern is the fact that the area has no geographic boundary, such as mountains or coastline. In addition, the number of people per square mile is much smaller than in other metro areas, and the lower-density living style means more drivers driving farther on the road.
Creating a plan to comply with clean-air standards yet also maintaining growth is the job of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), the area's planning agency. The group is considering various measures, including more mass transit, bike paths, telecommuting, car pooling, and trying to change land-use decisions.
"We anticipate fairly drastic lifestyle changes because we're going to have to put projects in place to make it work and we're going to have to implement them. Otherwise we won't pass [compliance] later," says Denise Wright, senior transportation planner at the ARC.
The issue is of particular concern to the business community, which wants to make sure Atlanta's growth prospects aren't threatened. "Most businesses depend on economic growth to grow," says Jim Carson, chairman of Carter and Associates, a commercial real estate company. "If we can't build roads and subdivisions, there's not room for people to come. We have to find a way for there to be more people and balance growth and for it to be done without polluting the environment."
Mr. Carson says finding solutions may prove to be a considerable challenge here because any plan to clean the air will require collaboration among many county and city governments. In other cities, government is more consolidated.
Another challenge is educating the public.
"Air quality is a difficult issue to get people interested in because you can't see it - it's not an in-your-face kind of problem," Ms. Wright adds. "There's also been an attitude among politicians, business, and the public that if we can't meet air-quality requirements, government will change them." More people realize now that that won't happen, she says.