The Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, approved a plan Wednesday based on more stringent air quality standards than one that was blocked last week by environmentalists. The federal government had been withholding funds from Atlanta for three years because of the city's high pollution levels.
The Atlanta area had been in "conformity lapse" since January 1998, meaning no new federally funded transportation projects could move ahead. The Atlanta Regional Commission, which serves as the metropolitan planning organization for the Atlanta area, was unable to show that an earlier regional transportation plan would conform to the state air quality implementation plan.
Concerns about the conformity determination for Atlanta were raised when the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta last week issued a stay on an "adequacy" determination by the EPA regarding the state's proposed motor vehicle emissions budget. That budget, absent the court action, would have been the basis for a new conformity determination. With the court-imposed stay, however, the prior emissions budget served as the basis for a new conformity finding. Using the prior budget will not harm Atlanta's air quality, say DOT officials, because it is actually more stringent regarding the key pollutants.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the original plan would have reduced emissions of nitrous oxide from the current level of 264 tons a day to 224 tons a day. The revised plan calls for reducing the smog-producing emissions below 214 tons per day.
The original plan promised that the region would meet those standards by 2003, but federal officials are extending the deadline until 2005.
The revised plan also includes provisions for improvements on transit services, sidewalks and bike paths, and system preservation. Construction is expected to begin on high occupancy lanes on Interstate 75 and 575 in Atlanta, as well as on a multimodal passenger station, which will provide a connection for commuter rail, bus, and airport passengers near a city transit station. Cobb County will get $6.5 million to widen Georgia 92 from I-75 to Wade Green Road. Funding under the revised plan includes 21 percent for safety measures and bridge and intersection improvements, and 26 percent for highway capacity. However, non-road projects will be the first to be funded.
Environmentalists may yet block the plan. Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Wesley Woolf says he is considering a lawsuit to keep road building projects from moving forward. Woolf represents four metro area environmental organizations who filed suit against the plan last spring. Environmentalists believe the transportation plan doesn't do enough to improve air quality in Atlanta.
Among the options Woolf is considering is a lawsuit alleging that the plan did not meet federal requirements for allowing public comment. "These guys can't just come out of left field and approve a plan that did not go through the public process," Woolf told the Journal-Constitution. Woolf said the Atlanta Regional Commission substituted the old plan after environmentalists succeeded in blocking the original plan.