Oh, Phoenix (Choke), What Clean Air (Cough) You Have!

ValTrans opponents say we don't need the mass transit system because--and here's where everyone starts laughing--the air quality in Phoenix is improving. Laugh all you want, the opponents say, we've got the statistics to prove it. In fact, in one of the brochures they're distributing around the Valley, opponents have printed a chart which purports to prove the air quality here is incredibly better than it was twenty years ago.

But the state official who supplied opponents with those statistics and that chart says it's being "somewhat misstated." And anybody who buys the opponents' interpretation is missing a very important point, says Gary Neuroth, head of air quality assessment for the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). "They're only looking at carbon monoxide levels," he stresses, noting that carbon monoxide is the invisible pollution nobody sees. "The measures we've taken so far to reduce carbon monoxide don't have any effect on particulates--the brown cloud we all see hanging in the air."

So while Neuroth says it's true that the invisible pollution level has declined slightly, he stresses that isn't the same thing as saying our air pollution is improving. And it never will, he adds, unless the Valley gets some of those cars off the road.

"It's true that carbon monoxide violations have declined slightly in the last couple of years, largely due to the anti-tampering test in the auto emissions program," Neuroth explains. "Even more improvement is expected when the program to use oxygenated fuels kicks in."

But neither of those measures reduces the number of miles traveled each day, the cause of an estimated 70 percent of particulate pollution measured in the Valley's air. "The amount of brown-cloud pollution is steadily increasing, and we're projecting it to keep increasing throughout the end of the century with the air quality strategies currently approved," Neuroth says.

"It's the best reason I can think of to continue looking for ways of reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled each day. You can clean up the engine emissions all you want, it's the number of the tires on the road that kicks up the brown cloud. There's just too many." But currently, the Valley's entire transportation plan is focused on building 203 miles of freeways. Period. ValTrans supporters say that without the light rail and thousand-bus additions they want voters to approve, the Valley is doomed to ever deteriorating air quality.

Neuroth adds another caveat to his bubble-bursting news on the quality of air here. Even the gains in carbon monoxide compliance are only temporary, he notes. The Valley's population is growing so fast that DEQ air quality scientists are predicting that gains from anti-tampering laws and clean fuels will be swallowed up by traffic within a decade. "We'll saturate all those new roads by then and the carbon monoxide will start going up by the late 1990s," Neuroth says. "This is certainly not the time for the `all clear' signal."

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Kathleen Stanton