Air Quality: What can be done to fix the problem?

​When it comes to improving air quality in Cumberland County, state lawmakers point to one key challenge standing in the way — the area's role as a transportation hub.

The Harrisburg Pike — commonly referred to as the Miracle Mile or Route 11 — lies between Interstate 81 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. That stretch of Route 11 features a flux of travel facilities and trucking companies, all factors Clean Air Board President Thomas Au said affect the state of air quality in Cumberland County.

“That concentration of trucks stops, warehouses and rest stops — that does contribute to degraded air quality,” Au said.

Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-199, agrees, saying he thinks “we’re going to have certain issues as long as we are a transportation hub, and that’s not likely to change because of our physical location.”

That transportation hub status provides a huge boost to the county’s economy, but brings with it large amounts of truck traffic and diesel fuel emmissions that flood the Cumberland Valley on a daily basis.

“It’s not an easy answer,” said Sen. Pat Vance, R-31. “Does it bring prosperity to our area – yes. But I really believe the major trucking companies have done a conscientious effort to be good neighbors to make sure their trucks don’t idle. But you can’t always control individually-owned trucks.”

Keeping the trucking companies involved while seeking an improvement to air quality became important factors while constructing the state’s anti-idling law in 2008, a law that imposed restrictions on how long a truck and school bus can remain idling.

“The DEP worked with the I-81 Corridor Coalition to raise awareness of air-pollution issues along the corridor and worked with the CAB to set up air-quality monitors near truck stops to inform the public of the levels of pollution near the truck stops,” said Lisa Kasianowitz, Information Specialist and South-Central Community Relations Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

“When this act was passed about anti-idling, I went back and looked at the original (bill),” Vance said. “There were like five sponsors, so it really wasn’t popular. But the Motor Truck Association was very forthcoming and saying, ‘Yes, we need to cooperate,’ and ‘Yes, this is good business for us.’ And besides, they use less fuel.”

The DEP and the Flying J Travel Center in Carlisle are making strides in the enforcement of the state’s anti-idling law by providing truck drivers with an air-friendly alternative.

“The DEP provided $252,830 of grant funding to IdleAir to install idle reduction technology at 36 spaces at the Flying J Travel Center in Carlisle,” Kasianowitz said. “IdleAir Inc. states that this location is one of the busiest locations that they operate, so implementing this technology at that location was crucial to reducing idling, therefore reducing air pollution.”

Even with the anti-idling law in place, however, there are challenges to make sure the law is followed.

Au said the anti-idling law is not strictly enforced, and Vance said there are challenges in enforcing the law.

“Enforcement could be better, but you only have so many resources,” she said. “When we have, unfortunately, more severe problems, to take a police force that may be strained to cite someone (takes time), and I’m not sure there is broad-based knowledge on who can be cited.”

Improving the air

Au said there are other factors that help improve air quality.

Modern pollution-control devices on tractor-trailers and busses helped reduce emissions, along with the Borough of Carlisle’s road diet plan, Au said. The plan was enacted in 2011 and implemented lane changes, traffic light reconfiguration, emergency vehicle preemption detection systems and signage to limit the number of tractor-trailers entering the downtown area. Au argued the measures have also helped with congestion in downtown Carlisle, which helps prevent how long vehicles are idling at intersections.

For Bloom, compressed natural gas is the answer to improving air quality.

“I do believe that the greatest potential improvement in our air quality will come from the transition from gasoline and diesel fuel to compressed natural gas ...,” Bloom said.

He said compressed natural gas does not produce as much emissions. Bloom predicted cleaner air in the next 10 to 15 years as a result of compressed natural gas becoming more widely used on the market.

Nancy Parks, Clean Air Research Committee Chairwoman for the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the club tries to curb the spread of particulate matter and ground-level-ozone-creating nitrogen oxide by pushing for alternative fuel sources, such as solar or wind power.

“We want to see the cleanest fuels possible used,” she said. “We’ve got a good solid amount of wind and solar power and we need more rebates from the federal government for more alternative fuel technologies.”

The Sierra Club also promotes green manufacturing companies that create products — from energy efficient storm windows to solar panels — capable of reducing the amount of fuel used not only to drive, but to heat and power homes.

“You bring in the manufacturing that’s going to make our lives better, not worse,” Parks said. “Power plants make our lives worse in all cases, there is no clean coal, you can’t make it exist.”

Another I-81 lane?

Another option introduced last decade was a possible restructure of Interstate 81.

PennDOT spokesman Greg Penny said a study was conducted from 2002 to 2004 determine the need for a third lane on Interstate 81. The study considered widening 77 miles of the interstate to include a 59-mile stretch from the Maryland state line to Route 581 in Cumberland County and 18 miles from Interstate 83 in Dauphin County to Interstate 78 in Lebanon County.

But the projected cost was “a little much for people,” he said. “We didn’t have the money to pursue that.”

Penny said project cost, in 2004 dollar amounts, was estimated at $1.52 billion, or approximately $17 to $23 million per mile.

That $1.5 billion project also did not include any work on interchanges on the highway, which Penny said date back to the 1960s and 1970s. Penny also said PennDOT looked at combining I-81 ramps around Carlisle to enable for roomier entry and exit.

“It really hasn’t gone anywhere since then,” he said.

Au, who attended a number of conferences on Interstate 81, said infrastructure including bridges and right-of-ways were some issues discussed but said the price of adding a third lane was a deal-breaker.

“Capacity-adding (to roadways) isn’t always our first choice. It isn’t always the best choice,” said Erin Waters-Trasatt, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation deputy press secretary.

Vance said the whole idea is a dead end.

“I just think realistically that’s not going to happen,” she said.

Other options

Bloom remained adamant in his view that “clean, abundant, cheap natural gas” is the answer to better air quality.

“It’s clean, it’s here in Pennsylvania, it’s inexpensive,” he said. “Through the natural forces of the market place, it’s going to take over as the natural source as primary fuel in the near future.”

Waters-Trassat says alternate transportation, such as carpools and transit, were ways to improve air quality with a particular focus by PennDOT on transit.

Au said rail possibilities were among alternatives brought up during the conferences devoted to adding a third lane to Interstate 81. Some tractor-trailers, Au said, could be transported via train to ease traffic on the interstate.

A shortage of parking areas for tractor-trailers in Central Pennsylvania, presents a number of issues, Au said.

“You often see trucks pulled over on the side of the highways resting or idling in the early morning, and that’s not good for safety,” he said.

Both Au and Vance agree that one thing that can be done is to educate people on the current laws and on the state of air quality.

“We could have some educational grants for schools to make them aware, (and) have better enforcement — but then we’d have to beef up our local (police),” Vance said. “I think education more than anything else is what helps people.”

Au said schools and community fairs are used to educate the public, and he cited the community partnership with The Sentinel and Carlisle Regional Medical center to supply an air quality monitor on the roof of The Sentinel building.

“I think that’s a good mechanism for the public to learn about what the air quality is before they go outside,” he said.

This article was first published by The Sentenial.

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