Where the (Early Action) Rubber Meets the (Clean Air) Road

Local leaders take the first steps toward real-world solutions to our air-quality problems.

So far, the Central Texas battle with air pollution has mostly been fought on paper. While citizens may recognize terms like "nonattainment," "O3 Flex," and "Early Action Compact," Capital Metro's free-ride Ozone Action Days are about the only real-world evidence that Austin has a smog problem and that the government is trying to solve it. That will change by year's end, as local officials finalize the list of clean-air measures -- from vehicle emissions testing to reformulated gasoline to bike racks and showers -- that, under the compact, would become mandatory in at least some parts of the Austin/Round Rock metro area.

A preliminary list of more than 50 strategies was released last week, meeting the first milestone in the EAC -- designed to head off an official "nonattainment" designation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with all the negative consequences that brings both directly and indirectly to local economies. (Toyota, for example, reportedly chose San Antonio over Dallas for its new plant because the Metroplex is already in nonattainment.) Whichever items on the list make the cut -- to be determined by next Jan. 31 -- will become part of a Clean Air Action Plan whose mandates will be implemented "as soon as practical" but before Dec. 31, 2005. The complete list is available online at www.cleanairforce.org.

Right now, Austin is doing fine when measured by the original ozone standard in the Clean Air Act -- the "one-hour" standard (a peak pollution rating), which the metro area hasn't violated since 1985. The O3 Flex agreement ("03" is ozone), signed by local municipal and county governments in 2001, was designed to make sure the Austin metro area didn't run afoul of the one-hour standard; most of its requirements affect the governments themselves, not their citizens. But the EPA also has a tougher new standard for measuring ozone -- the "eight-hour" standard which, after years of litigation, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court -- and Austin likely is already in nonattainment of that standard. (So is San Antonio, which has its own EAC with its surrounding communities.)

The Austin EAC, signed last year by the five counties in the metro area as well as the cities of Austin, Round Rock, Bastrop, Elgin, Lockhart, Luling, and San Marcos, gives the blessings of the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to local efforts to curb the two types of emissions -- nitrogen oxide and "volatile organic compounds" -- that combine in the atmosphere to produce ozone and thus smog. In return for avoiding the dreaded "nonattainment" label, the EAC members committed to cleaning up Austin's air more quickly -- by 2007 rather than 2010 -- than would be required under the normal Clean Air Act route.

Part of the deal is that the locals have to meet a series of milestones in the EAC, one of which was releasing last week's list. The items therein, however, are a long way from becoming the law of the region; leaders from the EAC member jurisdictions (a group chaired by Williamson Co. Commissioner Mike Heiligenstein) still have to decide which ideas they have the money, the skill, or the stomach to support. (The signatories to the EAC are known as the Clean Air Coalition; the Clean Air Force of Central Texas is the community nonprofit coordinating a wide range of local clean-air strategies.)

Another benefit to the locals of an EAC over the normal Clean Air Act route is flexibility -- some of the control measures will only be implemented in some jurisdictions, avoiding the kind of outrage spawned, say, in Houston, where the traditional, state-enforced air-cleanup plan required (among other things) lowering speed limits all across the region.

Here, however, suburban mayors and county judges have little reason not to sign off on a list with items like "Require all new non-residential developments of 25,000 square feet ... to include bicycle commuting facilities (parking/racks and showers) and preferential carpool/vanpool parking spaces." That one's got "City of Austin" written all over it -- as, for that matter, does the suggestion to speed up shutdown of the Holly Power Plant. But the items identified by the EAC signatories as "most attractive" -- for practical, legal, or political reasons -- would all likely apply throughout the area and could involve substantial expense for local citizens and businesses (see chart). Vehicle smog checks, for example, are "something that's going to be hard to avoid in all five counties," Heiligenstein noted at last week's press conference.

While emissions testing and reformulated fuel may mean a little more money out of the average Austinite's pocket, those and other recommendations will be more expensive for businesses, who are already starting to complain. But that, says Heiligenstein, is why the EAC signers and the Clean Air Force are so focused on "stakeholder" input and public awareness. "Businesses can't sit on the sidelines while we are dealing with this," Heiligenstein told reporters, "and then tell us it's wrong."

Chasing the (Smog) Clouds Away

The top emission-reduction strategies being considered under the Early Action Compact include:

FUELS: Low-sulfur gasoline; low-emission diesel for public-sector fleets

VEHICLES: Inspection/maintenance -- i.e., mandatory emissions testing

TRANSIT: Rail, park-and-rides, HOV lanes, bikeways

TRIP REDUCTION: Mandating employers to plan for telework, flextime, etc.

CONSTRUCTION: Limit public-sector construction work on ozone action days

AVIATION: Requiring electric or alternative fuels on airport ground vehicles

COMMERCE: Emission controls for dry cleaners, gas stations, printers, and other businesses

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