State Starts to Factor Transportation Into Pollution Equation

Clean Air Council concerned about emissions from cars, buses, and other vehicles -- but does it have a plan in place?

When people think about air pollution, the image that typically comes to mind is a power plant or factory belching out noxious emissions from a big smokestack.

But much of the pollution stems from transportation sources: emissions from cars, buses, and other vehicles cause ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog. Smaller local sources, such as dry cleaners and other businesses, also contribute to the problem.

The state Clean Air Council focused on the issue yesterday at a hearing in Trenton. It is a daunting problem for a state that has never met federal air quality standards for ozone, a pollutant that can cause breathing problems for the young and old. New Jersey has also never met the health quality standard for particulate pollution, an irritant that can cause respiratory problems, as well.

For many environmentalists, it is an issue that the state has long failed to address, particularly given what the transportation sector contributes to helping warm the planet. Thirty-five percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to the transportation sector, according to a report by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

“There’s a whole bunch of things they have walked away from when talking about the transportation sector,” said Bill Wolfe, New Jersey director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that represents public sector workers in whistle-blowing cases. “They have to expand beyond traditional pollutants to greenhouse gas emissions.”

In its notice, the council noted there have been a lot of improvements in air quality in New Jersey since the federal Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, but much more needs to be done. In addition to making substantial contributions to statewide air pollution, the large number of mobile sources (vehicles) and small-area sources directly affect neighborhoods due to their proximity to residents.

“What you have left, you have to go into the neighborhood and look at small sources, such a dry cleaners and bakeries,” said Michael Egenton, a senior vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce and a member of the council. “What I would like to include in there is what individuals do to contribute — the gas grills, the fireplaces, and the weed-whacker.”

Environmentalists have other ideas.

“The state has no plan for reducing the pollution from transportation,” argued Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The biggest piece is the failure to look at alternative technologies for vehicles,” he said, citing the Energy Master Plan’s not promoting electric vehicles.

The public is increasingly buying more energy efficient vehicles because of high gas prices, Tittel said. “It’s happening more because of the market than anything the state is doing.”

Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey, agreed.

“Given that the transportation sector is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, we’ve been disappointed both under Gov. Corzine and Gov. Christie they have failed to tackle the problems posed by transportation,” he said.
Beyond promoting electric vehicles, most environmentalists say the state needs to embrace employee trip reduction programs, a strategy initially embraced in the past, but scuttled by the administration of former Gov. Christine Whitman. The program would have encouraged more car-pooling by employees of large companies.

Egenton, however, questions whether trip reduction make sense these days with more employees than ever telecommuting. “The world has changed,” he said.

That may be true, environmentalists say, but it is not the case for public transit.

“In New Jersey and elsewhere around the country, the transportation subsidies have been way out of balance,” Elliott said. “We subsidize cars far more than electric vehicles and public transit.”

Wolfe argued the state also needs to re-establish its transportation trust fund, which is running out of money, a situation that has crippled funding for mass transit and other ways to get the public out of polluting cars.