News: Air Fare

Environmental health collides with transportation budgets

Aug 4, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes and Cameron Knight

If Interstate 75 is a traffic hassle and hazardous to the environment, maybe making it bigger is the wrong approach. But alternatives such as light rail carry political pitfalls and a big price tag

In the bureaucratic world of regional transportation planning, Byzantine laws and arcane procedures are the norm. With enough acronyms to fill a dictionary, it's easy to see why most people don't pay attention to the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Government's 2030 Regional Transportation Plan.

The plan could have profound implications for the quality of life of people living, working and playing in the three-state, eight-county, 198-community Tristate area.

If the Sierra Club is correct, OKI's plan will affect more than just commute times; it might determine your child's chances of contracting leukemia and your spouse's chances of suffering a heart attack.

By most accounts, the Tristate is approaching a traffic and pollution crisis. OKI's 2030 plan estimates that congestion on major roads and interstates leads to a collective 50,000 hours of delays and an economic loss of $2 million every day. By 2030, OKI predicts, congestion will affect even more roads in the area, causing even longer delays and increased costs.

Cars and trucks in the Tristate area produce about 103 pounds of smog per person per year, compared to 65 pounds in Los Angeles, according to the Sierra Club.

'Not about coughs'
To relieve congestion, two options are available: Widen and build more roads, or construct an alternative transportation system of rail and buses. With alternative transportation perceived to be politically unviable — although it's embraced by communities across the U.S. — regional transportation planners are falling back on option one: orange barrels, traffic jams and eventually wider interstates.

The 2030 plan calls for the addition of numerous lanes to dozens of roads in the Tristate, everything from Interstate 275 to Red Bank Road.

Some environmentalists and transit authorities, however, believe the proposed expansions are actually counterproductive and will lead to more congestion and pollution.

Under particular fire by the Sierra Club is a new proposal by OKI and the Ohio Department of Transportation to widen Interstate 75 from the Ohio River to Butler County.

The Sierra Club cites a compilation of 27 scientific, peer-reviewed studies to call for a rethinking of the project. The expansion of I-75 will only lead to a short-term reduction in congestion but have a long-term negative impact on public health, according to Glen Brand, the Sierra Club's Midwest representative.

"Widening the highway is going to worsen air pollution, expose more people to the harmful effects of air pollution," he says. "We are not talking about coughs. We are talking about cancer. We are talking about heart attacks."

Brand pulls out several snazzy pamphlets that detail what the Sierra Club believes to be examples of disastrous transportation planning across the country. Ohio is ranked one of the worst states.

Other experts are unsure if Brand's proposal is a good idea. Some suggest widening I-75 might actually lower pollution.

"The expansion is a complex issue," says Sergey Grinshpun, an environmental health professor at the University of Cincinnati. "On the one hand, if you make it wider, you expect higher traffic, which is bad. On the other hand, you expect faster traffic by passing the populated area without stop-and-go, which in fact will generate fewer particles per vehicle. So it is really hard to say."

The particles Grinshpun mentions have been proven in numerous studies to be harmful to humans. A study in The Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association found that volatile organic compound pollution from roads might contribute to the fact that children living within 250 yards of busy streets and highways are eight times more likely to contract leukemia. Other studies have linked soot and other fine particulate matter to lung cancer, cardiopulmonary disease and other causes of death.

John Schneider, an advocate for light rail and chair of the Alliance for Regional Transit, says the amount of nitrous oxide — which increases at speeds above 35 miles per hour — will grow if I-75 is widened. He claims I-75 will have to be widened to 12 lanes before traffic congestion is reduced.

'Not a transportation issue'
Instead of expanding I-75, a light rail line should be built parallel to the freeway, Brand says. A rail line offers a superior long-term solution to ending congestion and lowering pollution, he says.

Brand and Schneider champion the fact that OKI's own I-75 Corridor Commission arrived at the same conclusion. Four years ago OKI proposed a light rail line as part of its 2030 Regional Transportation Plan. A group organized by Schneider rallied around the issue.

The issue went before Hamilton County voters in 2002, as a half-cent sales tax hike. Residents rejected the proposal by a 2-to-1 margin (see "Same As It Ever Was," issue of Nov. 7-11, 2002). Light rail is now tacked onto the updated 2030 plan in a section for projects OKI wants but can't find funding for.

Mark Policinski, executive director of OKI, says the agency had no choice.

"Would it be a good idea to have light rail that moves thousands and thousands of people a day as opposed to driving their cars individually," Policinski asks. "The answer is yes, but it is not just a transportation issue. It is a funding issue."

Perhaps what makes regional transportation planning so hard to understand is that almost everyone agrees on the big picture — congestion and pollution must be reduced — but can't agree on how to achieve the goal.

Policinski says it's almost like arguing about religion. In this case, the debate isn't about the existence of God but where to place one sentence in a report, whether nitrous oxide is worse for you than diesel exhaust particles or if widening freeways actually leads to more congestion.

While environmentalists and planners debate seemingly miniscule issues, the rest of us grumble through long commutes, suck in smoggy air and face higher health risks.

"The longer it takes, the worse our problem gets — and it cannot get much worse," Brand says. "The last U.S. Census projection showed that Cincinnati saw the biggest population decline in the nation. The way to rebuild Cincinnati is to reinvest in public transportation." ©