My Turn: If you want cleaner air, you don’t want trains

For the Monitor
Published: 10/7/2019 7:30:10 AM

I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again. If you want cleaner air, the last thing you want is half-empty trains running up and down the state.

An Oct. 3 Monitor article, “Unhealthy air quality days in New England decline in 2019,” pointed out that the number of unhealthy air quality days in New Hampshire fell from six days in 2018 to one in 2019. What’s going on?

While the article didn’t speculate on an explanation, I will suggest it might have something to do with the fact (as stated by no less an authority than the EPA) that highway vehicles are getting cleaner. 2013-model cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, heavy-duty trucks and buses “are roughly 99% cleaner for common pollutants” than 1970 models. As time goes by, newer, cleaner vehicles replace older, dirtier vehicles and air quality improves.

According to the EPA, the number of days that ozone (smog) levels in New Hampshire exceeded healthy levels peaked at 42 unhealthy days in 1988 and has been trending downward ever since.

The EPA estimates that, between 1980 and 2015, aggregate emissions of six common transportation pollutants fell by 65% while the population grew by 14% and vehicle miles traveled grew by 106%.

Americans are traveling more than twice as far while generating only one-third as much air pollution. The average pollution per vehicle-mile traveled has fallen by a stunning 83%.

Congratulations, drivers! All those extra dollars you spent on emission controls on your vehicles have paid off handsomely in terms of healthier air. Instead of thanking you, the powers that be are trying their darndest to undo those gains. Professional and amateur environmentalists and health guardians have been curiously silent.

As if totally ignorant of such astounding success, the New Hampshire Legislature has combined forces with train lobbyists to plunge us into a more polluted future by attempting to shift an insignificant share of commuter trips from clean highway vehicles to trains that are driven by much, much dirtier locomotives.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, locomotive diesel exhaust is made up of particulate matter, smog-forming oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, greenhouse gases and “a noxious brew of toxic chemicals that together pose a cancer risk greater than that of any other air pollutant.”

Unlike highway vehicle engines, “diesel locomotive engines can run for 40 years or more . . . resulting in a slow turnover of dirty engines.”

While most highway vehicles are shut off when not moving, railroad locomotives are notorious for idling for hours when not in use, concentrating pollutants in small areas before they are dispersed by winds to affect larger areas.

You cannot look at the current relationship between transportation and air pollution and conclude that commuter rail will enhance air quality.

Yet, unbelievably, we have elected representatives – including presidential candidates, the entire New Hampshire congressional delegation and Concord’s entire legislative and Executive Council delegation – who both support commuter rail and profess to want to address climate change. Voters should beware of politicians who can’t connect two dots with a straight line.

The days when air quality can be used as an excuse for rail boondoggles are gone. If you want cleaner air, the last thing you want to see is half-empty trains running up and down the state. There. I’ve said it again.

(Dick Lemieux lives in Concord.)

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