Local politics: Franklin County can't fix air quality problems alone

Rob Moore
The Downtown Columbus skyline

Last week, the American Lung Association released its annual “State of the Air” report. In this year's report, Franklin County received an “F” for high ozone days.

The local data isn't all doom and gloom. Franklin County's average number of high ozone days per year from 2015 to 2017 was 5.3, still above a passing rate of 3.2, but significantly lower than peak numbers of almost 46 annual high ozone days in the early 2000s.

Janice Nolen, an assistant VP with the American Lung Association, said that Ohio's drop in high ozone days over the past two decades has been due to reductions in emissions from coal-fired power plants.

But why is Ohio still having so many high-ozone days?

A continuing culprit for local emissions is automobile use. Every mile driven by automobiles exacts costs on the public in the form of respiratory problems, asthma and heart attacks. A widely cited 2006 study published in theJournal of Economic Literature estimates the per-mile cost of local emissions at 2.3 cents per mile. This comes out to about 2.9 cents per mile in 2019 dollars.

This means the average driver in Ohio unloads about 84 cents of costs in health impacts (not including those caused by crashes, which are even more significant) per commuting day on other community residents.

Unfortunately, emissions costs are hard for local governments to capture. Cities and counties in Central Ohio rarely have the authority to directly price driving or cars through local gas taxes or vehicle registration fees. These localized fees could be avoided easily, as well, if only levied at the local level.

One tool some local governments have explored for capturing the costs of driving, namely congestion, is road pricing in key corridors, such as tolls. While Columbus has seen increases in congestion, the city is not at the point where such a strategy is likely to gain political momentum.

So what tools do local governments have? According to a survey last year of members of the National Association of Clear Air Agencies, most local governments are engaged in outreach, regional cooperation and pollution prevention programs broadly to manage air quality. Less common are strategies to adopt new transportation or energy technologies or to plan growth with sustainability goals in mind.

Another finding from the survey is that local air control authorities see state agencies as key partners in improving air quality. Working with state partners allows local governments to widen their reach, which is especially important when regulating activity that crosses municipal and county lines.

Ultimately, local governments will need to partner with state government in order to curb emissions. There are marginal gains to be had in outreach and local pollution prevention programs, but for any large-scale changes, local government needs the state. If the state is willing to work on local emissions, it should find willing partners at the local level.

Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a Columbus-based policy analysis firm.