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The Big O(zone) 

Last week, the Charlotte area made the American Lung Association's top 10 most ozone polluted city list, sliding in at No. 10.

That's not something I spend a lot of time worrying about, given the massive and ongoing declines in air pollution here and across the country due to much stricter automobile pollution and industrial emissions regulation from the Clinton and Bush administrations. Even with its surging growth, Charlotte's air is cleaner than it was a decade ago and much cleaner than it was two decades ago.

Still, making the list does indicate that Charlotte has a higher level of ozone than most places. That is probably because we spend so much time in our cars stuck in traffic while going from place to place. In the 1980s and 1990s, folks around here were so eager to see growth that they'd approve almost any development just about anywhere without giving much thought to whether two- and four-lane roads could carry all the traffic.

Then road building went out of style entirely. People who bought the homes in the suburbs that city and county politicians eagerly rezoned just years before were deemed evil for merely wanting to drive to work. Increasing road capacity to help traffic flow was deemed short-sighted, compounding the problem. A large portion of transportation spending was shifted to mass transit. A large share of the city's road money in recent years has gone to reconfiguring roads along light rail and transit corridors or roadwork in uncongested areas wanted for economic development and revitalization, like the Freedom Drive corridor.

Meanwhile, a 2009 report by the Transportation Committee of 21 sits gathering dust. The diverse group included local transportation planners, politicians of all political stripes, members of the development community and the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

"The magnitude of the problem we face as a community is enormous," the report concluded. "Escalated over 25 years, a $12 billion transportation funding gap stands to impede any significant improvement to roads and traffic in Charlotte-Mecklenburg for decades. In the absence of new and increased funding, our road system will simply break down. If we take action now we can solve many of our most serious challenges."

The report caused a buzz for a week and then was forgotten. Since then, city leaders have spent millions launching the $30 million first leg of what will eventually be a $500 million Uptown streetcar. They still don't know how many people will ride it, because in typical Charlotte spend-first-ask-questions-later fashion, they haven't studied that. This came on the heels of the abandonment of a trolley that cost the city at least $50 million and ran its full course for less than five years.

I've always wondered what the Committee of 21 meant when they wrote that the road system "would simply break down." I guess eventually we'll find out.

What is a life worth?

Two years ago, police found UNCC instructor Narayan Dhakal face down on 8th Street in a pool of his own blood. He was beaten so badly it took police days to identify him. He spent months in a coma. He's still in rehabilitation, with brain damage severe enough that his family wonders if the bright young man with the gift for math will be able to live independently again. His brother Abi Dhakal worries that without his family around to constantly care for him, he'd end up homeless. What upsets Abi Dhakal the most is what he calls the "murder of his brother." As is often the case with brain injury patients, his brother has changed into someone Abi Dhakal often doesn't recognize.

So what kind of sentence would you expect to get if you robbed someone and then beat them as badly as Dhakal was beaten? Thirty years? Twenty years? Fifteen?

Try two years and 11 months.

That's the sweetheart plea deal Maurice Weaver, 19, got for his crime. As an added sweetener, the district attorney's office allowed him to serve the time for the robbery charge concurrently. In a more rational criminal justice environment this would have netted an attempted murder charge and a robbery charge served separately. But hey, this is Mecklenburg County.

His two accomplices have not been sentenced yet.

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