Clearing the Air Everywhere


Southern California sometimes seems to get all the attention--and even occasional ridicule--but it is not the only place where air pollution and traffic congestion threaten the quality of life. Since last week, the San Francisco Bay area is under a federal judge’s order to get its smog-control program into compliance with the law--or else. And in the District of Columbia area, traffic planners are forecasting a doubling of commuter trips by the year 2010 with a projected shortfall of $20 billion to $30 billion in highway and mass- transportation funds.

Anyone who has driven on the Washington, D.C., Beltway recently will have some sense of the capital area’s increasing traffic problems. But the air-pollution problem in the breezy Bay Area may come as a surprise. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, ruling in a suit brought by environmentalists, held that both the state and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District had failed to carry out pollution controls promised in a 1982 regional air plan. “I intend to put the full power of this court behind that plan,” he said.

Henderson set deadlines for the air agencies to implement controls on large bakeries, small engines and a variety of household products, including deodorant sprays. These restrictions are similar to some of the tougher ones included by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in its new air plan this year.


But the Bay Area faces even more action from Judge Henderson if the Metropolitan Transportation Commission fails to adopt new traffic management programs designed to reduce auto emissions. They could include mandatory car pooling, higher bridge tolls and parking restrictions.

And he gave the commission 150 days to determine whether proposed highway construction projects should be delayed because they might produce too much pollution.

The smog problem in the San Francisco area is not nearly as severe as in Southern California, of course. But the region’s air still does not meet goals of the federal Clean Air Act. Bay area air quality officials said they were in the process of implementing the controls the judge has ordered. And transportation commission executives said they are working on the sort of programs Henderson outlined. They added, however, that the law does not give the agency the flexibility it needs to shift highway construction money to the transit projects that Henderson might require.

The Los Angeles region faced a similar court judgment until this year when the South Coast air district and the Southern California Assn. of Governments adopted the new air-quality and traffic-management program. The suit is in abeyance while the court determines whether the new plan is sufficient.

As the Washington area ponders massive construction to deal with future congestion, officials almost certainly will be faced with possible constraints imposed by air-pollution requirements. The challenge in both California and Washington will be to provide sound transportation planning that does not exacerbate air-quality problems, or judges may become de facto traffic managers. Air quality and transportation officials at all levels of government must work in concert to produce both healthy air and a functioning transportation system that is the foundation of the nation’s economic vitality.