DC-area leaders concerned about auto pollution post-coronavirus crisis

The air may feel fresher now with such a significant drop in driving around the D.C. area (and the rarity of stepping outside these days), but regional leaders who just approved analyses of the region’s long-term transportation plan are concerned pollution reductions could be limited going forward.

The D.C. area is “marginally” above 2015 federal pollution standards, and an air quality advisory group warns that meeting those standards by next year “will be a challenge.”

“This is concerning,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

He was among the wide-ranging group of state, regional and local officials on the Transportation Planning Board who voted Wednesday to adopt transportation plans and related air quality evaluations, but with concerns that the region could fail to meet future air quality standards due to continued plans to expand highways and limited improvements in gas mileage.

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A few board members voted against parts of the plans in protest of Maryland’s toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270, and Metro’s representative abstained from a key approval vote.

“It’s unclear yet … whether or not conformity is being reached because of actual action that this region is taking, or because of essentially technicalities within the modeling and technical approach that essentially allow the region to check the box and achieve the win without actually making the big changes,” said Metro Vice President of Planning Shyam Kannan.

Long-term projections show volatile organic compound and nitrogen oxide emissions from vehicles are projected to decline in line with federal requirements from 2008, but that the region is marginally above tougher 2015 health requirements.

The plans include all transportation projects approved for funding by local, regional and state agencies.

Besides transportation, regional pollution standards also factor in other areas, such as power production.

“Attaining the 2015 standards is going to be tougher for all sectors … everybody will have to do even more than what we are doing,” said Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Planning Director Kanti Srikanth.

Still, he describes the prospects as good for meeting the 2015 standards in the future.

Many of the transportation-related improvements over the last few decades are due to better fuel efficiency for vehicles, but the Trump administration has proposed easing requirements for auto manufacturers.

“All of these significant reductions are because of federal rules. If those are scaled back, then we will really have a challenge on our hands,” Srikanth said.

Over the last few years, more people have bought SUVs or pickup trucks, which has also offset some emissions gains. The number of heavy diesel vehicles has also risen, with trucks expected to contribute a large share of pollution moving forward.

Improving land use in the region to reduce long commutes or make it easier to take a train or bus would be another way to make significant improvements.

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