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New ozone standards may be challenge for Austin

Friday, July 24, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

The Austin area has a strong track record for meeting federal ground-level ozone standards, but a proposal to tighten regulations means that the region will likely have to work harder to stay in attainment. Failing to do so could make it more difficult for the city and its neighbors to achieve common transportation goals.

That’s the message that Texas Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) delivered Wednesday at a presentation organized by the city of Austin and the Clean Air Force of Central Texas.

“We have to up our game,” said Watson. “Cars and trucks contribute about 70 percent of the ground-level ozone in our region. … That’s where we will have the greatest impact.”

Watson listed a few strategies that residents can follow, including carpooling, telecommuting and waiting until after sunset to fill up on gas.

“The truth of the matter is, if we go into nonattainment, it will become harder for us to be able to do the things we’re going to want to do to address our transportation problems,” Watson continued.

Watson filed several transportation-related bills in the recent legislative session. These included Senate Bill 1032, which would have made it easier for state employees to telecommute. That bill was struck down when it made it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

As required on a periodic basis by the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of considering revision of the national ground-level ozone standards. The agency will issue a final decision by Oct. 1.

The current standard – 75 parts per billion – is “not adequate to protect public health,” the EPA has stated. The agency has proposed tightening the standard to some level between 65 and 70 ppb, arguing that “scientific evidence supports a standard within a range of 60 to 70 ppb.”

Ground-level ozone is created when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds chemically react in the hot sun. It can have health impacts on children, people with lung diseases such as asthma, older adults and other sensitive groups.

The EPA calculates attainment for designated regions based on a three-year average. The Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area – which consists of Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties – has a 69 ppb average for 2012 through 2014.

If the EPA puts in place a new standard, the agency would make attainment designations by October 2017, likely basing those decisions on data from 2014 through 2016.

Watson went into further detail about how nonattainment could impact transportation in the region.

“The federal government, in order to get federal funding for different roads, requires you to jump through a number of hoops,” Watson said. “If you go into nonattainment, you have to do more things than you’re currently needing to do, including … showing how it is you’re going to clean up the air and get into attainment. Ultimately, it could mean that you will not get the funding.”

As an example of an initiative that could be impacted by nonattainment, Watson referred to a recently announced 10-year plan to add express lanes and other mobility improvements to I-35 in Travis, Williamson and Hays counties. “If we go into nonattainment and we start having to jump through more and more hoops, then we slow all that down,” he said.

The express lanes in the project could help encourage more residents to ride the bus rather than drive, thereby reducing emissions that contribute to the proliferation of ground-level ozone.

Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar noted that nonattainment would also impact the region’s ability to obtain federal money for transit projects such as rail lines, which could also help to reduce ozone levels.

The conversation took place as Central Texas enters the hottest part of the summer – when ozone risks are highest – and as San Antonio struggles with nonattainment of current standards.

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