There are only a handful of elite competitive swimming facilities in the United States. One of the best is the $4 million Mona Plummer Aquatic Center on the Arizona State University campus.
Despite that outdoor facility's star status in swimming circles, university administrators want to sell half an acre adjoining the aquatic center to the City of Tempe.
Which wants to build a transit center on it. A regional, ten-bay bus center that would increase carbon monoxide levels in the pool area by at least 6,700 percent.
University and city officials say the pollution from hundreds of idling buses that will park at the transit center poses no health threat to the world-class athletes and recreational swimmers training in the 50-meter Olympic pool, an adjacent 25-yard pool and a ten-meter platform-diving tank.
"All the consultants and independent data that ASU has produced has not led us to any conclusion that there should be concern about having the transit center located next to Mona Plummer," says Jennus Burton, ASU associate vice president for administrative services.
Burton cites an academic paper as proof that the bus station will have no impact on the swimmers, who range from school-age athletes to 80-year-old-plus masters swimmers.
But the author of that paper, Kent Pandolf, director of environmental physiology and medicine at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts, doesn't agree with that interpretation.
In fact, Pandolf says putting the bus transit center next to the outdoor competition pool is a bad idea.
"It is not a good situation; it is not a smart situation," Pandolf says.
Pandolf recommends that the bus transit center be at least several hundred yards from the aquatic center. "A good rule of thumb is to keep them out of eye's view," he says.
The increased emissions from the transit center--which will serve more than 400 buses a day--could have a negative impact on the performance of athletes competing in a sport where one-tenth of a second is an eternity. The emissions could also aggravate underlying heart and lung conditions of older people who regularly swim at Mona Plummer, Pandolf says.
The Mona Plummer facility--named after the late ASU women's swimming coach--has spawned scores of collegiate, national, Olympic and international champions. Last month, Beata Kaszuba of the ASU women's team became the first female ever to break one minute in the 100-yard breaststroke, setting an NCAA and U.S. Open record of 59.72. She also won the 200-yard breaststroke and was named the outstanding swimmer of the NCAA championships.
The aquatic center is the proving ground for hundreds of other competitive swimmers, who routinely push their pulse rates to a neck-thumping 180 beats per minute while breathing huge quantities of air for hours at a time. After a lengthy workout, senses can be so acute that swimmers notice a lighted cigarette, 50 yards away.
Swimmers regularly using Mona Plummer only recently learned of plans to construct the transit center next to the pool, although the city has been talking with Burton and other top ASU officials since last spring. Swimmers have submitted a petition to Tempe officials requesting that the location be moved.
ASU athletic director Charles Harris was informed of the site last summer, and ASU coaches were told last fall of the potential bus station. Harris declines to comment on the transit center location. ASU men's swimming coach Ernie Maglischo, women's coach Tim Hill and Sun Devil masters coach Ron Johnson are against putting the terminal next to the pool.
"That will destroy a $4 million swimming facility," says Johnson, a former world-record holder in the 100-meter butterfly and nationally ranked masters swimmer who has a reason to fear additional pollution at the pool. Johnson balances competitive swimming with a serious heart condition.
The Tempe City Council has never held a formal public hearing on the location of the transit center. During an informal study session in February, the council gave city staff approval to move forward with the acquisition of the property next to the aquatic center. The city is expected to pay ASU $395,000 for the property.
The Regional Public Transportation Authority and Tempe are working together to build the $3.7 million transit facility. The two governmental entities submitted a lengthy environmental assessment to the Federal Transit Administration as part of an application for a federal grant, which would cover 80 percent of the bus center's cost. The assessment ignores possible pollution impacts on users of the swimming facility.
A supplemental air quality report prepared by a private consultant for Tempe and RPTA shows sharp increases in pollutants entering the swimming facility. The increases, however, are dismissed by Burton as being minor because they do not come close to reaching federal and state standards for unhealthy air.
Tempe transit officials acknowledge they never considered whether increased emissions could have a negative impact on athletes and elderly people using the swimming facility.
The location next to the swimming pool is just one of five alternative sites selected by Tempe transit officials as a suitable area for the transit center. ASU owns three of the sites.
Last year, Burton rejected two of the locations suggested by Tempe and recommended that the transit center be placed next to the aquatic center.
One location Burton rejected is currently a parking lot on the northeast corner of College Avenue and University Drive, across the street from Tempe's existing bus transfer station. Burton says the parking lot is unsuitable for the transit center because it is frequently used by "prominent individuals" dining at ASU's elite, debt-ridden University Club located across University Drive.
Ironically, Burton also rejected the parking lot as a transit center site because "noise, vehicular exhaust, debris and pedestrian concentrations might create some health, safety and welfare problems for our residents, especially those residing at Palo Verde West residence hall."
Although the public comment period related to the federal transportation grant is over, Mary O'Connor, Tempe's transportation planner, says the final location for the transit center can still be changed.
"There has been a lot of discussion about the potential for other sites," O'Connor says. "We have a lot of citizens who would like to see it at Tempe Center."
Tempe Center is a shopping plaza ASU owns in downtown Tempe. Burton has rejected it as a site for the transit center because the shopping center is "predestined to become a landmark building area, as well as a gateway to the campus."
The City of Tempe cannot take property from ASU, another governmental entity, through condemnation. Therefore, university property cannot be used for the bus center unless ASU officials agree.