Air today, gone tomorrow

The report card is in, and the news isn't great. Orange County, according to the American Lung Association's recently published study, received a "F" in air quality from 1996-98. And there's more bad news: behind the industry-laden Escambia County and the congested-as-hell Hillsborough County, Orange's air is the third worst in the state. In 14 days of that time span, the report says, Orange's air was unhealthy for "sensitive" people -- asthmatics, children and the elderly.

While 14 days in three years may not sound that bad -- after all, it's only a little more than 1 percent, and there was only one day classified as "unhealthy" for the general population -- the failing grade is based more on concern for the health of, again, kids and the elderly, who are more adversely affected by poor air quality. Additionally, the "F" is largely indicative of the region's coming problems, should our current path not be altered.

"The message," says current Metro-plan Orlando and ex-Lung Association spokesman Bob O'Malley, "is that our air is still good, but it's getting worse. By the time it gets bad, it's too late [to do anything about it]."

Though Orange boasts the worst air quality record in Central Florida, it didn't flunk by itself. Osceola and Polk counties each received an "F" , although they had fewer "unhealthy for sensitive groups" days. Volusia, Seminole and Brevard counties all fared a bit better: They each received grades of "C."

The reason: cars. Simply put, we have too many -- and that number will increase with sprawl. As any environmentalist will tell you, a traffic jam is just about the worst thing there is for preserving air quality. And on I-4, we have traffic jams aplenty.

Just one week before the Lung Association's report, light rail was sealed in its coffin when Congress voted to revoke $364 million in mass-transit money. That means Central Florida is dependent on roads, signaling the soon-to-come construction bonanza: the widening of I-4, the rebuilt I-4/408 interchange, the Western Beltway and work on State Road 50, to name a few. The problem, transportation officials have said, is that by the time the construction is complete, the increased number of cars will offset the gains. In other words, when it comes to alleviating traffic congestion, road construction will do little or nothing.

So it would seem that, if nothing else, we should make sure the cars are doing the least amount of harm. Following an Environmental Protection Agency request, six Florida counties (Palm Beach, Duval, Broward, Dade, Hillsborough and Pinellas) have been for the last seven years testing the emissions of all cars registered in those counties. And there's been some success: Recently the EPA said Palm Beach, Duval, Broward and Dade were all now meeting environmental standards, meaning the state no longer had to test in those counties.

But the state Legislature went further, passing a amendment that would eliminate emissions testing statewide, despite the fact that seven counties failed the Lung Association's study and three more received a "D." That bill now awaits a gubernatorial decision.

In 1998, Orange came perilously close to violating the EPA's own standards, thus jeopardizing federal highway dollars. Atlanta, which violated the EPA standards, has faced a moratorium on road building. Our saving grace was, ironically, the summer fires, which got the blame for the air-quality problems.

As sprawl worsens, it's possible that Central Florida might be forced to test emissions, says Florida Highway Safety legal affairs spokeswoman Sherry Slepir.

If, however, you can't bear either the coming smog or the possible testing, don't head for California, which had six of the top 10 worst counties in the country. Tallahassee, on the other hand, ranked in the top 25 best nationally.

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