July 19, 2001

New Castle County can breathe easier -- Wilmington Area Planning Council has declared the ozone crisis resolved, at least for the next few years. And the bistate agency said it was able to accomplish that without having to require lower speed limits on Interstate 495 and the Delaware Route 1 bypasses around Smyrna and Dover.

What's more, federal acceptance of a plan to bring the most populous county into compliance with Clean Air Act standards for vehicular emissions assures that federal money for highways building and other transportation projects will continue to flow into Delaware. Among projects previously said to have been threatened was the extensive road network planned for the Blue Ball area in southern Brandywine Hundred.

In a 'press release' issued on July 19, the planning council said that the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration both signed off on the plan on July 16. Approval came in the proverbial nick of time -- just a week and a day before the deadline to demonstrate sufficient progress toward meeting the standards.

"The next time this could become an issue is 2005," said planner David Saladino.

Because no major highway-building projects are presently contemplated beyond those already in the pipeline and included in the model on which standards attainment was based, it is expected that vehicular emissions of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds will remain within acceptable limits at least until then and probably beyond, he explained. The approved plan projects compliance through 2025.

The offending chemicals combine to produce ozone. Under certain atmospheric conditions -- particularly hot muggy days -- ozone levels become high enough that they are unhealthful.

The planning council's 'release' also declared that neighboring Cecil County, Md., was similarly brought into compliance with federal acceptance of its plan in June. The council is the designated transportation planning organization for New Castle and Cecil Counties, which are considered a single metropolitan area.

New Castle County was brought into compliance on the basis of future actions. Primarily, the planning council claimed -- and was granted -- 'credits' against actual emissions because of  the ability of the state motor vehicle inspection process beginning next January to more strictly monitor emission controls. The state then expects to have equipment in place to check the functioning of emissions control electronic chips that are in vehicle models later than 1996.

Until now, Saladino noted, many owners have been able to get their vehicles through inspection simply by putting a gasoline additive in the tank just before going through the line.

Also cited by the planning council as measures promising reduction of pollution were Delaware Department of Transportation's program to coordinate traffic signals along major routes and efforts to expand and promote the use of public transit.

After nearly a year of open discussion and extensive publicity in something of a crisis-like atmosphere, that plan was formulated and quietly approved by the planning council's board  for submission to Washington on June 21.

Saladino agreed that resolution of the crisis was largely a bookkeeping exercise. "We managed to put together 'credits' without doing anything more than what was already going to happen," he said.

Doing so without calling public attention to the process at that point enabled the planning council to back away from a controversy over the politically unpopular proposal to reduce the state's only 65 m.p.h. speed limits, at least on days when the pollution threat is deemed the greatest.

Several state lawmakers had declare that too radical a solution. Federal criteria for offsetting pollution are based on speed limits, not actual speeds traveled, although that is what elevates emission levels. Although the two express highways are the only ones in Delaware with 65 m.p.h. limits, it is generally recognized that average speed on several other roads is that or higher.

The planning councils 'release' cautioned that the ozone pollution issue is not fully resolved.

"Although these recent approvals extend our air quality conformity status and will allow federal transportation funds and permits to continue, the issue is one that is not likely to go away anything soon. With population figures, automobile trips and vehicle miles of travel all increasing at significant rates, and the potential for emission budgets to come down even further, we will need to take a long-term approach to cleaning the air in our region," it said.

Saladino said that mitigation steps generated by the crisis will go forward. They include putting changeable speed limit signs on I-495 and Delaware 1 and studying the feasibility of an arrangement by which the state would buy or encourage through tax concessions the disposal of older vehicles.

He said one advantage of having gone through the crisis is that it made a relatively large segment of the public aware of the issue.

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Go to Wilmington Area Planning Council's air pollution Web page
Read a guide to the Clean Air Act, written in plain English







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