Clean Air Ellis Rides Again

Democratic dynamo has three unrelated measures in Lege grabbing attention for their ambitious attempts to reform Texas' air quality

Among the 106 bills state Sen. Rodney Ellis has filed so far this legislative session, the democratic dynamo from Houston has three virtually unrelated measures grabbing attention for their ambitious attempts to reform Texas' air quality – both inside and out. Senate Bill 124 would bring Texas' vehicle emissions rules up to par with California and 10 other states that have passed more stringent tailpipe limits than the feds. Hoping to encourage folks to increasingly abandon their pollution-pumping autos all together, Ellis' SB 248, known as the bicycle safe-passing bill, establishes a minimum distance cars and trucks must maintain when passing cyclists. Ellis has also proposed a statewide smoking ban, SB 368, which would outlaw puffing in all indoor public places – including bars and live-music venues.

Ellis rolled out his emissions measure last November with the support of several big city mayors. It would require automakers to offer substantially lower-emitting vehicles by the 2009 model year and to sell a minimum number of autos statewide that use hybrid technology. It has been touted as one of the state's first proposed climate-change remedies. At the end of January, the bill picked up co-sponsorship and was referred to the Senate Natural Resources Committee, where it awaits a hearing. Committee Chair Kip Averitt, R-Waco, criticized SB 124, saying, "Money is better spent getting old cars off the road." Last week he filed SB 12, which would goose up funding for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan and the state's Low-Income Vehicle Repair Assistance program, to further incentivize replacing or repairing disproportionately polluting older vehicles and heavy equipment engines.

Environment Texas advocate Luke Metzger described Averitt's introduction of SB 12, made alongside General Motors and Ford officials, as "worrisome," arguing that Texas' clean-air-challenged cities and sprawling populations demand cleaner new vehicles now. It's great to spend taxpayer money funding SB 12, he said, but, "It's better to require automakers to sell the cleanest cars possible, especially for a fiscally conservative Legislature." Metzger says he hopes Averitt and his committee will see that the two bills naturally complement each other and pass both.

Few transportation modes are more complementary to air quality than riding a bicycle, however. Ellis' SB 248 would make bike-riding safer, by establishing a minimum buffer zone motorists must provide when passing cyclists: 3 feet for cars and 6 for large commercial trucks. The bill failed last session, but it's in high gear this time, unanimously passing the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee this week. Jeremy Warren, Ellis' communication director, expects the House to take up the bill by mid-March and pass it with minimal debate.

Preston Tyree is an Austin-based cycling-safety instructor and national bike transportation consultant who's often called as an expert witness in cycling accident cases. He has taken issue with a series of exceptions included in the bill that can create a defense for violators who argue that a cyclist wasn't complying with existing laws – such as displaying proper lights at night or not riding as far to the right as safely possible, which he said is often made dangerous by debris or storm drains. Tyree said juries tend be biased against cyclists and are largely unaware of their rights on public roads (including taking a full lane when the shoulder is unsafe), often asking, "Why wasn't he just riding on the damn sidewalk?" Tyree hopes Texas will join six other states with safe-passing bills and enact SB 248 as is, "tightening up" its judicially problematic details later.

Speaking of judicially problematic laws, the ongoing woes over Austin's controversial smoking ban could be rendered moot if Ellis' proposed statewide smoking ban is passed. Austin's anti-smoking ordinance was kneecapped last October by a ruling that declared its exclusive enforcement against bar owners unconstitutional. (The city filed a related appeal this week.) SB 368 mimics bans enacted in New York City, Ireland, and 16 U.S. states (seven this year alone), establishing penalties primarily for individual offenders. Warren says the law will be complaint-driven, won't include smoking patrols, and state and local health officials will be charged with enforcement – though police will be authorized to issue tickets. Picking up Senate co-sponsorship last week, SB 368 awaits referral to committee and is expected to gain a House companion bill soon. Supporters include the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, and Texas PTA, and Ellis points to a recent poll that found 71% of Texans favor a statewide law eliminating smoking in all indoor workplaces and public facilities. Not surprisingly, the tobacco industry opposes the ban, but Warren said, "I'd be very interested to find a legislator who will speak out against this bill."

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air quality, Texas Legislature, Rodney Ellis, SB 124, smoking ban, SB 368, Kip Averitt, SB 12, Texas Emissions Reduction Plan, Low-Income Vehicle Repair Assistance Program, Luke Metzger, Jeremy Warren

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