Tough choices about air quality lie down the road 

On this Earth Day, it is a fitting time to consider the environmental challenges facing the Bay Area — namely the air quality goals that the region needs to meet in the coming years.

The need for cleaner air is not something that would be nice to do for the environment. In fact, new standards have been set by a state law. Under Senate Bill 375, which became law in 2008, the Bay Area must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent by 2020, and 15 percent by 2035.

Tough choices lie ahead for the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Those regional governmental agencies are going to have to implement changes that affect real people. While emissions reductions and cleaner air are likely to be supported by a majority of the population, things might break down when mandates start to affect people and their routines.

Take, for example, one early proposal — which is nowhere near fruition — to reduce the speed limit on Bay Area freeways to a maximum of 55 miles per hour. This idea is not as farfetched as it might sound, given it has probable impact on helping reduce emissions. According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, slowing vehicles down on regional freeways from 65 to 55 mph would reduce vehicle emissions 6 percent by 2035. According to the agency, traveling between 40 and 55 mph is the speed at which vehicles are most efficient and produce the least emissions. Limiting freeway speeds to 55 mph would be the equivalent of removing 300,000 cars off of area roads.

Of course, this is just a proposal — one that would face numerous obstacles should it be selected for possible implementation. Changing the speed limits on Bay Area freeways would probably require state legislation, according to a spokesman from the California Highway Patrol. State lawmakers would no doubt receive an earful from their constituents about such a proposal.

Any notion of slowing down freeway drivers may have the brakes applied well before the idea reaches the next step of planning. But the real focus needs to remain on the state’s overall emission-reduction goals. It will be easy to get hung up on the small details related to the larger issues (It will take me how much longer to drive to work?). Tough choices do need to be made, though, for the region to meet these worthy goals. Other ideas under preliminary consideration are more car-sharing projects and electric-vehicle programs.

The lip-service that Bay Area residents pay to environmental causes will not help us accomplish the goals that need to be met by 2020 and 2035. Real changes need to be implemented, and we cannot wait much longer to start making difficult choices. It is naïve to think that we can continue on our current path while improving the environment.

Today is a perfect day for all of us to acknowledge the environmental challenges facing our region and to pledge to be open-minded about the decisions that lie ahead. The dates for the emissions goals may seem far away, but time will speed by.

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