The most comprehensive ride-sharing program ever proposed for Southern California, affecting 8,000 businesses and 1.5 million commuters, was unanimously approved Friday by the South Coast Air Quality Management District board.
Morning rush-hour traffic could be cut by as much as 25% in the four-county South Coast Air Basin under terms of the ride-sharing regulation, which is the first in a series of new clean-air strategies to roll back air pollution in the nation's smoggiest urban area.
Emissions of carbon monoxide and the two main ingredients of photochemical smog--nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons--would see modest reductions. Still, those reductions were viewed Friday by state and federal regulators as essential if progress is to be made in cleaning up the air.
The vote, after a day of testimony, was in marked contrast to the board's defeat of a less-stringent ride-sharing program two years ago and signaled what many said is the beginning of major changes in how automobile-conscious Southern Californians get to work.
"I think this is going to signal the beginning in a change in life styles," AQMD board member Marvin Braude, a Los Angeles city councilman, said after the vote.
"To me, we're taking a first and very important major step in more directly involving people in an individual way in solutions to clean up our air," said AQMD Board Chairman Norton Younglove, a Riverside County supervisor.
Braude said he would move to scrap the City of Los Angeles' recently approved ride-sharing program "as soon as practical" because the AQMD plan is "far more stringent."
Businesses with 100 or more employees will be required to offer incentives to employees to share rides or use public transit to meet the district's goal of increasing the average ridership in vehicles to 1.5 people from the current 1.13 people--an achievement that would result in 740,000 fewer daily vehicle trips between home and office.
Failure to prepare and implement ride-sharing plans will carry a fine of at least $1,000 a day. The AQMD staff is reviewing state law to determine whether fines could go as high as $25,000 a day. However, companies that make a "good faith" effort to comply with the regulation but fail to meet the district's ridership goals would not be penalized.
Businesses would be required to review and update their plans annually. The district plans to hire an additional six to nine workers to put the ride-sharing program into effect.
Friday's vote climaxed a long drive by clean-air advocates to win approval of a ride-sharing program.
As recently as this week, AQMD board member Larry L. Berg said, several companies told him that they did not believe that the district would impose such a regulation.
"I hope the message that comes through today is these are tough decisions. They're costly and we've got to do it," Berg said.
But Berg predicted problems in implementing the plan, and board member Thomas Heinsheimer said that talk of life-style changes "really depends on how seriously the new board takes the regulation."
One board member who voted against ride-sharing in 1985 on Friday hailed the new regulation. "This is significant. It's going to make a difference," Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder said. Asked what caused her to change her mind, she said simply, "I've never been for government control. . . . But there's a time to follow and a time to lead."
Sabrina Schiller, one of the most outspoken clean-air advocates on the board, said: "The political resistance on our board was broken down. The fact that the public spoke out is what broke down the political resistance."
The new regulation drew widespread support from environmentalists, major business interests, and regional, state and federal government agencies. No one during the daylong hearing opposed the plan, although many called for changes in how it is implemented and some, such as the Hospital Council of Southern California as well as schools and universities, asked to be exempted because they said they either could not afford to offer ride-sharing incentives to their employees or called the plan impractical.
John Wise, deputy regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told the board that traffic remained the largest single remaining unregulated pollution source in the South Coast Air Basin.
'Major First Step'
"The (regulation) represents a major first step by the district to prove that overuse of motor vehicles in the South Coast can, and will, be reduced on a continuous basis throughout the air basin," Wise said.
But Michael Scheible, assistant executive officer of the state Air Resources Board, said that even stronger ride-sharing measures would be needed to meet the district's goal of an average 1.5 riders per vehicle during the four-hour morning rush hours.
In the last 17 years, he said, there has been an 80% jump in vehicle travel. Another 60% increase is anticipated between now and the year 2010.