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Be bold with VW funds

December 4, 2018

The San Antonio region has been awarded $61 million in Volkswagen settlement funds, which can be used to improve air quality here.

The funds are part of a larger $209 million settlement with Volkswagen, which equipped vehicles with emission defeat devices to cheat emissions tests. In the United States, about 590,000 vehicles had such software.

The decision to provide so much funding to the San Antonio region was a point of contention as the Texas Department of Environmental Quality drafted a plan to allot these funds across the state. Some had argued that other areas had more Volkswagen vehicles equipped with emission defeat devices than the San Antonio region, meaning air quality in other regions suffered more from the scandal.

But state officials correctly viewed San Antonio as the top priority because of our recent failure to meet federal ozone standards. The region barely missed the mark, and the thinking from state officials is these funds could go a long way toward improving air quality here and possibly achieve attainment, which would be an economic and health lift.

That designation will delay federally funded transportation projects, which will undergo additional review. And it could create obstacles for business expansion here through delayed air permits. Beyond this, the American Thoracic Society has estimated ozone kills 52 people per year in San Antonio. Along these lines, it also contributes to hospitalizations and missed work and school days.

It’s unclear how San Antonio officials might use these funds. In early October, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg sent a letter to the TCEQ advocating the funds be applied to ConnectSA, the mayor’s forthcoming transit plan. Transit has to be the policy priority for this fast-growing region because an effective plan would reduce congestion, improve air quality and better connect one of the most economically segregated cities in the country.

But it’s not clear if these funds can be applied to such a transit plan. The state’s final plan is heavy on replacing freight trucks, buses and construction equipment. It’s relatively silent on other forms of air quality mitigation, simply saying there may be options not listed.

Another possibility, then, could be using the funds to replace older school buses with ones that run on compressed natural gas. This would have tremendous benefits for air quality in San Antonio.

At any rate, the political temptation might be to spread these funds thin to meet a variety of needs. Doing so might serve political purposes, but it would undermine the point of the settlement, which is to improve San Antonio’s air quality. On this point — whether it’s new buses or supporting a transit plan — the region should be focused and bold.

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