On air-cleanup matters, the North has thing or two to offer South, Central Valley

When I read in the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s “Valley Air District Helps Fund Development and Demonstration of Zero-Emissions Transport Refrigeration Unit” Oct. 11, 2017 news release the statement “[The] TAP [Technology Advancement Program] supports technology development in critical areas which will assist the San Joaquin Valley in meeting stringent air quality goals,” I saw that statement as a real positive.

For those not already aware, the San Joaquin Valley is the most air-polluted air basin in the entire United States for fine particle pollution. For fine particle pollution, in fact, the American Lung Association has declared the Valley to be America’s dirtiest air hot spot, and it is consistently among the dirtiest hot spots for ozone (or smog) too. This is evidenced in the lung association’s “State of the Air” reports, which have been coming out annually since 2000.

Now, there are those who proclaim that air in the San Joaquin Valley over the years has improved, and, while it’s true that the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone (a one-hour standard set at 124 parts per billion of air) has been met, the fact remains that other, tighter national, state and regional (Valley) health standards for both fine particle and ozone pollution have not. It should as well be understood that those standards over the years have changed – they’ve gotten more health protective. While that’s good, some may argue that this being such is akin to moving the goal posts farther away which, in this part of the country, means reaching these standards is harder. No doubt the reason behind the Valley being granted an extension out to year 2037 to meet the most recent national ambient air quality ozone health standard of 70 parts per billion measured over an eight-hour period.

Working against this in this regard is that driving in California is on the rise – not the reverse. But, it is not just this: motor vehicle purchases are also up and this, coupled with lower gasoline and fuel prices, comparatively speaking, and a drop in transit ridership in many locations, contributes to the degradation of Valley air.

I say: “Kudos to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District for programs like TAP and others.” These are doubtless making a positive difference in the Valley. But, as good as these efforts are at helping to improve local and area air quality, more must be done in the Valley to clean the air further. And, responsibility for that should not be the Valley air district’s alone. If we want cleaner air, it’s on us all who live here (in the Valley) to work toward that goal. Remember: to be able to pull that off, it will take a team, not an individual or single agency.

That, by itself, is good – make no mistake. However, there is another element in this equation, and that is us being aware of the types of mitigation strategies at our disposal to further the air-pollution-reduction cause, as it were. What I’m talking about is us having an understanding of what are some of the most effective ways to approach emissions-reduction.

Stopping the wall-to-wall horizontal Valley sprawl would be an excellent place to start. Attitudes, behaviors, building and development paradigms and practices and principles and policies must all be adjusted so as to bring about success as it has to do with this very notion. The operative term that reflects this is Smart Growth. It essentially equates to a land-use and transportation platform or landscape shift – a “reboot” if you like. It is this and programs like it that promote denser infill development which support active transportation (walking and biking) and transit use – all elements that make such efforts successful and help lessen driving’s negative impact on area air quality.

If you recall from “North Bay Area passenger rail is back, BIG time – 2,” the Air Quality Matters blog post of Aug. 17, 2017, the focus was the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) commuter rail service which began Aug. 25, 2017, connecting North Santa Rosa and San Rafael in the North Bay Area. SMART, apparently, has been a resounding success so far, so successful, in fact, that not only have ridership projections been surpassed, but there appears to be insufficient provisions for bikes to be carried on board trains, a situation that is being watched very closely by system management. That’s a good kind of problem to have, if you want to know the truth. This system was built to lessen the number of commutes by motorists traveling paralleling State Route 101 in that section.

California SR 101 on Cotati Grade

Along these lines, there is now a promising effort underway to connect the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) heavy rail commuter rail network at the Dublin/Pleasanton station to a station in the northern San Joaquin Valley via a light rail transit system. The idea here is to get motorists out of their cars and onto public transportation to provide further relief to the extremely heavy traffic that seems to have overwhelmed portions of Interstate 580, a main highway artery between the Valley and the east Bay Area.

What’s more, via the recent granting of $400 million, the Altamont Corridor Express service is being extended farther south from the tri-cities region of Tracy/Manteca/Lathrop to Modesto and Ceres. This operation provides commuters going to and coming from the Bay Area a viable passenger train service also along portions of the busy Interstate 580 as well as portions of State Routes 120 and 99, both transiting areas of the San Joaquin Valley. And, not just this, but interested individuals and members of the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority – the agency with direct oversight of Amtrak San Joaquin passenger train operations – are looking into the possibility of adding an additional round trip between Fresno and Sacramento using an alternate route from Stockton north, currently used for freight train operations only (the former Western Pacific Railroad) versus it utilizing its present routing (a former Southern Pacific Railroad line). One proposal is to have a San Joaquin schedule offered, one where the northbound would leave Fresno around 4:30 a.m. and arrive in California’s state capital three hours later at 7:30 a.m. and return to Fresno to tie up for the night leaving Sacramento after the conclusion of the business day, say, around 5:30 p.m. and to arrive back in Fresno at 8:30 p.m.

More of the these kinds of alternatives to driving and flying could do so much and go so far to help area air quality, especially as people are taking to the roads and driving in ever greater numbers. Adding roadway miles to try to accomplish the same thing simply is not the answer.

That said, people’s transportation options shouldn’t be limited to driving – a balanced system of transportation is what I’m talking about here. However, if we insist on driving, then we should be doing so in motor vehicles that are not nearly as destructive on air and human health. That’s the bottom line.

Progress in the San Joaquin Valley is evident, though it is much less apparent, by comparison, in my view. We must do more, way more, if we want to make a real difference progress-wise.

Since mobile sources contribute the largest in the way of emissions in the Valley – as much as 80 percent according to what I understand – then transportation seems the place to address first in terms of making significant reductions in air-pollutant emissions. And, embracing urban-based rail transit systems, that’s where I would start. It seems the rest of the Valley could take a lesson from what is going on rail-activity-wise in the north San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere.

Note: The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s “Valley Air District Helps Fund Development and Demonstration of Zero-Emissions Transport Refrigeration Unit” news release was originally reported here as having an Oct. 10, 2017 date of release. This post has been revised to now include the correct date.

Images: Stephen Gold (middle); California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board (lower)

– Alan Kandel

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