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Bad air at the ‘Y’ in Oak Hill raises health concerns

January 29, 2013  

by Bobbie Jean Sawyer

The bumper to bumper traffic that plagues drivers at the ‘Y’ can make you late for work and drain your patience; but there’s a much more severe impact the congested roadway has on Oak Hill residents: air pollution. Chris Kite, a member of the air quality division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), presented facts on the environmental impact of vehicle emissions at the January monthly meeting of the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN).

Kite said while Austin’s air quality status, based on the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), is “on the cusp” of reaching non-attainment, it’s not beyond hope.

A city’s attainment status is based on the levels of pollutants such as carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide and ground level ozone in an area.

Kite said ozone, created by a combination of nitrogen oxide (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sunlight, is the biggest threat to Austin’s attainment status. Nitrogen oxide, which is primarily caused by humans, comes from car engines and industrial stacks, while volatile organic compounds are naturally emitted from vegetation. Nitrogen oxide is the largest contributing factor to ozone, Kite said.

“We can’t control the weather,” Kite said. “But we can control the precursors and try to understand them.”

Kite said the EPA won’t make new attainment designations for at least three years.

“Their plan is to revisit the standard this year and next and see if it needs to be tightened up and then go to 2016 to make the designations based on the full two years of data available,” Kite said.

Despite public perception, Kite said, overall, air quality is getting better.

According to a study using the Motor Vehicle Emissions Simulator (MOVES), newer vehicles produce significantly less pollutants.  A car that was manufactured in 2000 produces over 1.75 grams of nitrogen oxide per mile, while a 2012 model produces under .25 grams per mile. The performance of new models is projected to increase steadily each year up to 2030.

“Every single day, week, month, old cars die out completely and every single day new ones are purchased,” Kite said. “Those new ones are so much cleaner than the old ones.”

Kite said improvements in vehicle manufacturing point to continued improvement in air quality over time.

But with a variety of vehicle models on the road and stop and go traffic, with roads at full capacity in the Oak Hill area, emissions remain a threat to air quality, according to Rick Perkins. Perkins is an OHAN officer and board member on the Clean Air Force of Central Texas, a non-governmental organization devoted to coordinating air quality planning, educating the public on air quality issues and managing air quality improvement programs.

Perkins said it’s congested roadways, such as the ‘Y’, that do the most damage to the environment.

“Right now there’s only one road to get through the ‘Y’ unless we cut through all these back roads. Big trucks aren’t going to do that and you don’t want them to do that,” Perkins said. “So they’re all stuck in traffic and they’re giving off the worst emissions they could possibly be giving off.”

Perkins said due to the inefficiency of vehicle engines, idling cars produce a variety of harmful pollutants.

“We’re not only talking about NOx. We’re talking about NOx, carbon monoxides, VOCs and particulates. All that pollution is increased when you’re below 45 miles per hour,” Perkins said. “Vehicles are not designed to idle; they’re designed to operate and to go somewhere.”

According to a 2008 Austin Area Emissions Inventory, on-road mobile vehicles are responsible for 54 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions.

The Clean Air Force of Central Texas reports that high concentrations of ground level ozone, primarily caused by cars and trucks, can cause several health issues, such as headaches, nausea, eye and throat irritation and lung damage.

The ‘Y’ intersection’s location along the pathway to the Hill Country and beyond means traffic—and pollution—will only increase overtime, Perkins said.

“People tend to forget that this road, Highway 290 West, is Austin’s connection to going to Interstate 10. That means going to El Paso, Fort Stockton, Los Angeles, Phoenix,” Perkins said. “A lot of people are moving through here and, in the future, more people will. We have more people and more people are going places.”

Perkins said he believes the answer to Oak Hill’s traffic problem is a freeway, complete with high-occupancy vehicle lanes for carpoolers and buses.

In addition to providing convenience for commuters and limiting air pollution, Perkins said a new roadway would improve water quality by allowing for more controlled runoff by filtering water before it flows into a stream.

“A freeway will help us in two ways: water quality and air quality,” Perkins said. “If you’re into clean air and clean water then you should support a new roadway.”

However, not everyone is in agreement that a new roadway is the best solution.

Dick Kallerman, a Save Our Springs Alliance board member who has served as transportation chair for the Austin Sierra Club for 25 years, said promoting alternative transportation solutions such as carpool lanes, is more viable and environmentally-friendly.

“The Sierra Club’s position and my position is to provide alternative means of transportation,” Kallerman said. “We think that’s the way to solve congestion. Give people alternatives. People won’t sit in traffic for an awful long time. It’s painful. It’s expensive. If you give them another way to get from A to B that’s convenient and cheaper, they’ll do it.”

Kallerman said making public transportation more convenient and efficient is another way to limit congestion.

“Buses are often times stuck in traffic—just like cars. If we could set it up so that buses had their own lane and wouldn’t be stuck in traffic, buses would be filled with people and those people wouldn’t be driving on congested highways.”

Kallerman said he believes the ‘Y’ would be better served with similar alternatives, such as the in-progress continuous flow intersections, than with the construction of a new road.

“What we don’t want is a lot of expansion of infrastructure at that connection, which would be overhead lanes, particularly because it’s right on Williamson creek,” Kallerman said. “Our opinion on Oak Hill at the ‘Y’ is improve it with the least amount of infrastructure.”

It’s unlikely that the debate among freeway supporters and their opponents will be resolved any time soon. But projects to offset air pollution are already well underway. The Clean Air Force of Central Texas created the Clean School Bus Program, which works to retrofit engines in old buses and help purchase new buses when necessary; and the Clean Air Partners Program, which advocates for more environmentally conscious business and government practices.

The Clean Air Force of Central Texas also created the Ozone Alert Program, which alerts the public on days when air pollution is close to reaching unhealthy levels, and provides the following list of suggestions for citizens to help reduce pollution.

• Take public transit, carpool, bike or walk

• Combine errands to reduce driving

• Reduce electricity usage in the late mornings and early afternoons

• Use electric lawn equipment and delay mowing your lawn until after 6 p.m.

• Avoid driving during hours of peak traffic

• Delay refueling your vehicle until after 6 p.m.

• Stop refueling when the gas pump clicks off

• Maintain your vehicle and drive the speed limit


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