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Editorial: The road to cleaner air

Since 2003, when Rowan County first got a snootful of bad publicity for having the highest ozone readings in North Carolina, our air pollution worries have dissipated somewhat. Now, a dodgy economy and sputtering job market are the murky clouds on the horizon.
But air quality remains a significant concern for our region, as should be obvious from the number of ozone alerts we experience this time of year and the lingering possibility of federal sanctions. And this week, in a federal district court in Asheville, a judge is hearing North Carolina’s argument that the Tennessee Valley Authority needs to reduce pollution from its power plants because it’s threatening the beauty and economic vitality of our mountains.
So it’s a good thing that the Center for the Environment at Catawba College continues to pursue strategies for improving our air. Its work received an important boost recently through an N.C. Department of Transportation grant. The stipend will pay 80 percent of a $1.3 million project that will examine ways to improve air quality along the I-85 corridor, specifically by reducing traffic congestion.
Of course, anyone who regularly commutes between Rowan and Charlotte might argue that reducing congestion is a worthy goal in itself, air improvements and health benefits aside. But traffic density and air pollution are closely correlated. It’s estimated that tailpipe emissions are responsible for about half of the ozone pollution in our region, with factories, power plants, heavy equipment and out-of-state sources contributing most of the rest. Anything that can lower peak traffic loads in the I-85 corridor will help the region’s air quality. Rowan’s proximity to the corridor and its location between the Charlotte metro area and the Triad are major reasons for its high readings in the past ó and the reason we have two state air quality monitors constantly sampling the atmosphere.
What makes the center’s grant especially timely is the renewed interest in expanded transportation options amid escalating gasoline prices. Back in 2003, cynics and naysayers could blithely dismiss calls for more energy efficient, lower-polluting forms of transportation as futuristic solutions that the marketplace simply wasn’t interested in and wouldn’t support. With gasoline selling for under two bucks a gallon, who needed mass transit, car pooling, telecommuting or increased research research into hybrid power systems and biofuels? Just gas up the SUV and go.
How things have changed. SUVs are gathering dust on dealer lots, more people are biking to work or taking the bus, and companies are encouraging carpooling while expanding their work-from-home options. Now, reducing air pollution and cutting transportation costs turn out to be opposite sides of the same coin. The strategies that give us cleaner air can also lead to cheaper commutes, less congested highways and more energy independence.

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