Creating air quality success in California’s heartland: How hard can this be?!

This year marks 25 years of Amtrak California Capitol Corridor service in December. The Capitol Corridor train was a late-comer in the grand scheme of the nationalized Amtrak passenger rail program. And, the success story that CC service is more or less mirrors that of Amtrak itself. Each are remarkable stories in their own right considering America’s railroad was faced with the prospect of discontinuance shortly after startup – in the case of nationwide Amtrak service, that would be May 1, 1971.

Amtrak is what Amtrak does. The bigger story here, however, is what effect transportation has on the environment and on air quality in particular. This is an oft-repeated story here on the Air Quality Matters blog no question, but some new, interesting and important information has come to light and it happens to have a San Joaquin Valley focus.


I’ve read that $2.5 billion in highway construction monies designated for Valley use is being withheld (I would guess indefinitely) as long as regional air quality fails to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

This is such a bad idea. That the monies themselves are being withheld, isn’t the problem. Rather, that those specific funds are being tied up for no other reason than because this area of the country is way out of air compliance with respect to meeting those newest air-quality standards is what is – the problem. To put it bluntly: think just how oxymoronic the very idea of such sounds, the thinking behind this being totally backward (and when I say totally, I mean “totally”) – this is just so fundamentally wrong!!

Human_respiratory_system-NIH[1] (340x226)The San Joaquin Valley, with over four million residents and two million private passenger vehicles, is home to some of the most polluted air in the nation. It’s the worst for fine particulate matter pollution and ranks right up there for ozone or smog behind Los Angeles which tops the American Lung Association’s list for such. Childhood asthma rates in Fresno alone, are off the charts. About one-in-three children suffers from the disease, according to information in a Dec. 2007 The Fresno Bee special report called “Fighting For Air.”

What is more, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District claims that more than 85 percent of regional air pollution (fine particulates and ozone predominantly) emanates from the exhaust pipes of trucks, buses, cars, trains and other types of off-road vehicles and equipment – collectively, mobile sources.

Then there is NOx or oxides of nitrogen pollution. Different sources produce different amounts. In tons per day the breakdown is as follows:

  • Heavy duty trucks: ~ 115
  • Passenger vehicles: ~ 80
  • Agricultural equipment: ~ 55
  • Stationary and Area Sources: ~ 45
  • Off-road equipment: ~ 20
  • Other off-road including trains: ~ 20

(Source: “Figure 1 – San Joaquin Valley NOx Emissions and Federal Air Quality Standards,” from Jun. 22, 2016 letter directed to Gina McCarthy, Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and produced and signed by Seyed Sadredin, Executive Director/Air Pollution Control Officer, San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, p. 5, accessible using the following link:

Instead of the Valley as well as its inhabitants being rewarded with guaranteed road-building funding, that is, should this area ever be in air compliance (the air itself earning healthful status – good air quality, in other words), that the monies are even available at all for this purpose makes absolutely no sense. It’s a no-brainer. (Hint: It is roadway driving, predominantly, that is the reason the Valley has gotten into this predicament in the first place). In case there is any doubt, fossil-fuel-combustion-power-propelled driving results in more airborne NOx being released than from all other mobile-sources related activity combined. The presumption is roadway expansion would spell more driving and more driving is synonymous with more polluted air. NOx, incidentally, is the building block (the precursor emission) for both ozone- and particulate-matter pollution.

To use an analogy, by rewarding this region with allocated highway-building monies as a result of our collectively meeting all pertinent air-quality standards, well, truth be told, that makes about as much sense as relinquishing productive farmland and, in its place, erecting housing tract after housing tract (and, on a larger plane, subdivision after subdivision), which, historically, has done nothing but further exacerbate the already poor condition of area air, especially given that there is much land within Valley cities’ spheres of influence available for development and redevelopment, be it high, medium or low density. This goes by another name: it is called “infill building.”

You see my point?

On the other hand, provided it were allowed – and I’m not saying it is – but, provided it were, in diverting that two-and-a-half-billion dollars for construction on the backbone of the California high-speed rail project in the Valley, in the long run, think how much better that would be for area air considering that trains will operate using 100 percent renewable electricity which will create no emissions of their own.

In the final analysis and as far as I’m concerned, that $2.5 billion earmarked for highway construction in the Valley is grossly misappropriated, that is, as long as it is for air-pollution-relief purposes which it is. Mind-boggling, just mind-boggling!

Middle image above: U.S. National Institutes of Health: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

– Alan Kandel

4 thoughts on “Creating air quality success in California’s heartland: How hard can this be?!”

  1. You say, “diverting that two-and-a-half-billion dollars for construction on the backbone of the California high-speed rail project in the Valley, in the long run, think how much better that would be for area air considering that trains will operate using 100 percent renewable electricity which will create no emissions of their own.”

    Given that CHSRA is claiming huge carbon savings from its operation based entirely on its assumption that dense urban housing will develop along its right-of-way, how much carbon with that train add to the Central Valley’s air pollution–millions of new homes and people?

    • The likelihood that the federal monies for highway improvement work in the Valley could ever be transferred for any use other than highway improvement work is slim to none.

      But, consider also that the Valley meeting federal (National Ambient Air Quality Standards) air quality thresholds for either fine particulates or ozone anytime soon, conditions being what they currently are, is also slim to none.

      My suggestion to not tie these federal dollars up when they (in my opinion) should instead be used in real and quantifiable air pollution mitigation strategies (e.g., getting the most polluting cars and trucks off roads in the San Joaquin Valley by replacing them with ones that do not pollute nearly as much), would do much and go far to improve air quality in the region. Applied In this way, two-and-a-half billion dollars would make a considerable difference.

      Related, there is this article in today’s The Fresno Bee online:

      “Wanted: Developer for massive Selma master-planned community”

      But one more oft-repeated story in the Valley. Key word here: “massive.”

      • A major factor in the Central Valley’s air pollution problem is the wind flow carrying pollution from the Bay Area’s millions of cars, trucks, industry, and homes over the Altamont pass, and south where they are trapped beneath the inversion layer by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Tehachapi Mountains and the coastal range. That structural problem gives the south Central Valley no hope of meaningful attainment. In fact, UC Merced and CSU Fresno scientists debited ALL air pollution sources within the valley and found that the remainder imported pollution would prevent such attainment. Adding millions more people and homes to the valley with fast transportation–whether in cars or on HSR– aggravates non-attainment. It’s Catch 22, all the way.

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