There's something dirty in the air lingering over the Bluff City, and the more we drive, the worse it gets. Memphis ranks 17th in the nation for air pollution from cars and trucks, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
The report focuses on the correlation between highway capacity per capita and vehicle emission levels, placing cities with the most miles of highway at the highest ranking for smog. Memphis ranked sixth in the nation for highway capacity in large cities.
At least three other Tennessee cities scored poorly. Nashville had the worst score in the large-cities category, ranking number one in the nation for air pollution from cars and trucks and second in the nation for highway capacity. In the mid-size cities group, Chattanooga ranked fourth for vehicle emission pollution and Knoxville ranked 10th.
According to Jeff Barrie, coordinator for Citizens for TDOT Reform, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) spends too much of the state's transportation dollars on highway construction. He says his group is currently working with TDOT on its long-range transportation plans, and they're trying to convince the department to spend more on public-transit alternatives.
"Most states spend about 5 to 6 percent of their transportation dollars on rail projects and public transit, but Tennessee spends less than 1 percent of our budget on alternative modes of transportation," said Barrie.
Ed Cole, chief of environment and planning for TDOT, said the department has known about the air-pollution situation for a while and is working on a plan for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's Air Quality Control Board to reduce vehicle emissions.
Cole said there is some talk about lowering highway speed limits from 65 mph to 55 mph in Shelby County and other urban areas in hopes of decreasing emissions from trucks. He said he would also like to see the vehicle inspection program expanded to all major cities in the state but contended that the best solution would be to reduce the dependency on cars and trucks.
"Memphis just expanded its trolley service to include the Madison Avenue line, and we really need more of that type of activity to get people out of cars," said Cole. "Reducing use is the most effective way to reduce air quality from vehicles."