We have to clean up the way we get around Houston
In 2019, there have already been 29 days with so much ozone pollution that Houston’s air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index, has been considered “unhealthy” for everyone, with potentially serious impacts for seniors, those with respiratory illnesses such as asthma or emphysema and children.
For 29 days, it could have been bad for you just to breathe.
Houston’s polluted air is making us sick. It’s killing us. That’s a number that’s gone up every year since 2016. Our levels of smog, or ground-level ozone, are now the ninth-worst in the U.S. High ozone days tend to lead to increased risk of ambulance trips and hospitalization for everything from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) events to heart attacks. According to the American Thoracic Society, ozone pollution causes more than 100 premature deaths in our region every year.
And ozone is only one of the major pollutants to be concerned about.
Much of these pollutants can be traced back to the cars and trucks clogging our streets and freeways. In Harris County, vehicles account for about half the nitrogen oxide pollution that forms ozone. And vehicles are Houston’s top source of greenhouse gas pollution, emitting more than 19 million tons each year.
Continuing to double down on costly car-centric infrastructure will only induce more demand for driving and lead to more pollution and more congestion, as the expansion of the Katy Freeway years ago has shown.
Because Houston can’t prosper without clean air, we must clean up the way we get around. And Houstonians can help do that by voting to approve Metro’s bond referendum on this November’s ballot.
Called MetroNext, it’s a plan to raise $3.5 billion in bonds, without raising taxes, to invest in Houston’s much-improved public transportation. MetroNext will include 75 miles of new bus rapid transit — fast, convenient service that works like light rail, with dedicated lanes and new stations. It will include 290 miles of “boosted” routes, which will keep buses moving and prevent idling. It will create 16 miles of new light rail, which is electric, and it will fund a 25 percent increase in local bus service, adding new routes and rebuilding stops with shelters and real-time passenger information — as well as enhancing accessibility improvements that will help people on foot and on bikes walk or ride to cover that first and last mile to and from stops.
These new options will help everyone get around better. They will also improve air quality in Houston, our shared home. A report by Cambridge Systematics concludes that combining better public transportation with smarter development patterns that limit sprawl could reduce the country’s transportation emissions by as much as 15 percent.
With MetroNext, by 2040, Houston will see as many as 500,000 vehicle trips eliminated every day. That will reduce the region’s ground-level ozone pollution and our greenhouse gas emissions by 680,000 metric tons every year.
And, as the city works to build out the zero-emission infrastructure identified in the Houston Bike Plan, Metro is also considering the use of fully electric buses, which would bring clean transit to even more of the city.
Air pollution doesn’t have to be such a problem in Houston. On high ozone days, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality advises everyone to avoid driving and walk, bike and take transit. Voting for MetroNext will give more Houstonians the choice to do that every day. It will give us a better transportation system, and it will also give us much-needed cleaner air and better health, too.
This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
Metzger is Executive Director of Environment Texas, a nonprofit advocate for clean air, clean water and open spaces.
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