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Proposed Law Has Business Thinking About Smog

June 08, 1989|WILLIAM FULTON

Clarence Walthall probably won't get the notice in the mail from the county until early next year, but he's already thinking about it. Walthall is the operations manager of Petoseed Co. in Saticoy--"in charge of everything that doesn't have to do with seeds," as he puts it--and the notice he's expecting will require his company to change the commuting habits of the 160 people who work there.

Walthall has a few ideas already: preferred parking places for car-poolers, flexible hours for some employees, awards for those departments with the most ride-sharing. But it's likely to be an uphill battle. "Flex-time" isn't an option for most of his workers. And rush-hour traffic, while congested, isn't bad enough to encourage most people to share a car or throw themselves on the mercy of notoriously circuitous bus routes. In the end, he says, "I'm just going to have to call them in here group by group and sell it to them."

Most other big employers in Ventura County will be going through the same frustrating routine soon. Next week, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors will consider an air-pollution control rule that would force companies with 50 or more employees to draw up so-called "trip-reduction" plans, designed to cut the number of commuter trips in cars and trucks. The measure is expected to pass.

If the plan succeeds in Ventura County, it will be a first. No other locality has tried to cut air pollution with such measures, although a few have succeeded in thinning peak-hour traffic. And the local business community is less than enthusiastic about a rule that could dramatically affect work schedules and business hours.

The rule is similar to a requirement recently imposed on the four-county Los Angeles region by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Spokesman William Kelly said the South Coast agency has rejected about 40% of the companies' ride-sharing plans so far. "A lot of the companies seem to want to do the minimal amount required--as little as possible," he said.

If the Ventura County ride-sharing rule meets its goal, it will reduce air pollution in the county by only about one-half of one percent. But its symbolic value is considerable. It would be the first regulation in Ventura County aimed at reducing smog from "mobile" sources--such as cars and trucks--rather than "stationary" sources such as factories and oil fields. As such, the rule is probably an indication of things to come, as county and federal officials struggle over the next few years to attain federal clean air standards.

Though Ventura County has suffered only two smog alerts in the last six years, its pollution problems are among the worst in the nation. In fact, the Air Pollution Control District has never set forth a strategy to meet federal air quality standards--a violation of federal law which led a local environmental group, Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, to file suit in an effort to force tougher smog-fighting measures.

Under terms of a settlement last February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has until June, 1991, to prepare a clean air strategy for Ventura County. County air pollution officials are working with the EPA on the plan.

Court Orders Feared

The ride-sharing rule is one step in that direction. "We are trying to avoid a situation where some federal judge says: 'Employees in Ventura County can drive to work on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday only,' " said County Supervisor Susan Lacey.

The county doesn't intend to force people out of their cars, at least not directly. Rather, it may require large employers to draw up plans to encourage their employees to share rides or commute during off-peak hours--specifically, before 6 a.m. and after 10 a.m. Those hours are considered critical because pollutants emitted from vehicles during morning hours "bake" in the air on hot, still days to create afternoon smog.

Although company officials could be fined or even jailed if they refuse to draw up the trip-reduction plans, they cannot be penalized if their employees do not reduce their trips. For the most part, the county will take the word of companies that the plans are being followed, although it will require a progress report each year.

Most organized business leaders in the county, including the Ventura County Economic Development Assn., support the rule. But individual firms vary in their commitment to the cause.

Old Plans Exist

Some have old ride-sharing plans dating to the energy crisis of the late 1970s. GTE instituted an extensive, employer-subsidized van pool and private bus system when it moved its corporate headquarters from Santa Monica to Thousand Oaks four years ago. "We plan to do this at least until construction of the Ventura Freeway is done and possibly thereafter," said spokesman Larry Cox.

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