WASHINGTON - As the Environmental Protection Agency considers tough new air pollution standards, Atlanta is still struggling to comply with the old ones, a struggle that likely will force major lifestyle changes on one of the nation's fastest growing regions.
"Frankly," said Joel Stone, director of comprehensive planning for the Atlanta Regional Commission, "there are going to have to be measures taken to reduce the amount of travel by anything that pollutes, and that means cars and trucks."
Such talk is akin to heresy in the Atlanta metro area, where residents drive more miles on the average each day than in any other city. But it's motor vehicle emissions that are making it virtually impossible for Atlanta to meet the ozone standards EPA imposed after passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act.
Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds come together in the presence of sunlight, and in Atlanta, vehicle emissions are the source of more than half of each of those chemicals. The EPA estimates that dirty air creates health risks for as many as 1 million people in the Atlanta area.
Because of metro Atlanta's rapid growth - the population has increased 32 percent and developed land area has nearly doubled in the past decade - vehicle use projections are soaring.
And last year, those projections made it impossible for the region's master transportation plan to meet the requirements of the state's blueprint to bring the region's ozone levels into compliance with federal law.
The result is that no new, federally funded transportation projects can be started in the 13-county Atlanta region until the Atlanta Regional Commission develops a new three-year transportation improvement plan that conforms to the state's pollution abatement plan.
"We're not able to add some very vitally needed projects," said Frank Danchetz, Georgia's chief highway engineer. "You can't go into an area where you know you've got congestion and put in extra lanes. That congestion is going to continue until people leave their cars at home or find alternative routes."
Atlanta isn't the only area where the inability to meet clean air standards has stalled new transportation projects. Federal environmental officials say eight of the 200 areas nationwide that currently are in violation of pollution standards lack approved transportation improvement plans.
That number likely will grow if the EPA orders into effect this summer the tough new ozone and soot standards it proposed last year. In Georgia alone, the EPA has estimated that at least 29 additional counties would be unable to meet the tougher standards, based on their pollution records of recent years.
If the new standards are or^_³dered into effect - and congressional protests against them are mounting each day - EPA officials say areas with pollution problems will have years to address them before facing a highway building freeze like the one now confronting Atlanta.
Atlanta's existing transportation plan remains valid until the end of this year. Any projects in that plan that are under construction, or that have the environmental planning completed, can proceed beyond that date. The state also can start some new projects that fall under the law's exemptions, such as safety improvements.
As a result, Atlanta is in no danger of losing any federal highway money any time soon, even though federal law prohibits the expenditure of federal funds on projects that would worsen an area's ability to comply with pollution standards.
Meg Patulske, an analyst at EPA's office of mobile sources in Ann Arbor, Mich., said no area has ever lost federal highway funding because of a failure to comply with pollution standards. Such sanctions are triggered only when a state fails to develop a plan to meet clean air standards, she said, and that's not a problem in Georgia.
What is a problem, state and federal transportation and environmental officials say, is developing a new transportation plan that will get Atlanta's drivers out of their cars and into alternate modes of transportation.
"The days of building new freeways, and improvements to freeways and widenings of freeways are over," said Stone, whose agency has until the end of this year to develop a new transportation plan that can comply with the state's pollution control plan.
"But that's not necessarily bad," he said. "We've got to look at our region. We're going out farther and farther and developing. If we continue what we're doing now, there's just going to be more and more cars in the system. We've got to stand back and look for ways to grow differently."