Board members of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency responsible for formulating a plan to cleanse the region's air, unexpectedly sought to distance themselves Friday from another agency's proposal to reduce traffic-related pollution by imposing a variety of motorist user fees.
Although the board did not formally consider the proposed fees at its meeting Friday, AQMD board Chairman A. Norton Younglove, a Riverside County supervisor, and at least four other AQMD board members said the drawbacks of commuter fees might outweigh the benefits.
"They are fraught with hazards," board member Sabrina Schiller said of the fees. Schiller, of Pacific Palisades, is a clean-air activist.
"My immediate reaction is that I would not be inclined to support them," said board member Larry L. Berg, director of the Unruh Institute of politics at USC. "I'm not going to support a proposal that puts the burden of clean air on Joe and Sally Commuter until I am satisfied that major polluters such as diesel vehicles, utilities and refineries are bearing their fair share."
The proposal for the commuter fees is the brainchild of a task force set up jointly by the Air Quality Management District and the Southern California Assn. of Governments, a quasi-official regional government advisory board. After the proposal was outlined Thursday at a press conference, both SCAG members and AQMD staff members indicated the air quality board was aware of the fee package and was expected to support it.
On Friday, however, Younglove and others said the fees proposed as a sweeping amendment to the region's air quality plan had caught them by surprise. Though they did not reject them outright, board members clearly were miffed at the way the matter had unfolded in the public arena.
"Their staff didn't bother to include our board," Younglove said.
"I would have preferred to have had us work on it jointly rather than have it come out in a sudden announcement," said board member S. Roy Wilson, a Palm Desert city councilman.
The reaction of the AQMD officials, said observers, is symptomatic of chronic political tensions that come between governmental groups trying to formulate environmental policy for a vast region extending from the Pacific Ocean to the Arizona state line, and from the Mexican border to the Central Valley.
The AQMD has the final authority over the federally mandated clean-air plan, and it has come under heavy fire during the last year for approving a broad array of stringent air quality controls for the next decade.
Commuter fees would be certain to create more controversy, challenging the Southern California tradition of free highway travel. As envisioned by SCAG, drivers who commute alone in their cars during rush hours would be charged a fee. The proposal also would impose new smog charges on cars and trucks, possibly through an increase in registration fees. In addition, employers no longer would be able to subsidize employee parking costs.
SCAG officials said they now plan to present the fee plan next month to the air district board for formal consideration.
Younglove said he was only dimly aware of the committee's proposals endorsed by SCAG, and he faulted the SCAG staff for keeping his board in the dark. He also chastised the other agency for "going out on its own" when it unveiled the fee proposal at a Thursday press conference.
Officials at SCAG insisted they were not acting rashly or unilaterally. They pointed out that AQMD board member Henry Wedaa is a member of the task force that recommended the fees and that Judy Wright, a Claremont city councilwoman who served on the task force, discussed the fees with AQMD staff members twice since January.
"I made two presentations to committees attended by AQMD senior staff," Wright said. "None of this should be a mystery to the AQMD. I really don't know why there would be any surprises."
Tom Eichhorn, the AQMD's media relations officer, said that he, too, was surprised by the responses of AQMD board members.
"I was a little taken aback by the board's reaction," said Eichhorn, who had reported Thursday that his agency's staff had reacted positively to the proposed fees and predicted that the board would not oppose them.
By Eichhorn's count, however, half of the 12-member board expressed reservations about the fees--or criticism of SCAG for publicizing the fee proposal before presenting it to the AQMD board.
The board members said that the fees may not be a good idea for a number of reasons.
Younglove said that he was concerned about the effects a fee system could have on poor people. "There are major implications, including the impact on low income drivers," he said.
A majority of the 12-member AQMD board could not be interviewed Friday, but SCAG officials were taken aback by the quick negative reaction of Younglove and some of his fellow board members.
"The danger with that kind of approach is that you can wind up with a pay-to-pollute policy," said Schiller, maintaining that instead of cutting down on their driving, many people might feel they were doing their share to curb air pollution simply by paying the fee.
Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude, who is also a member of the AQMD board, said that a fee system might require several years of study and trial runs before it could be made part of regional air quality control rules.
"You have to start out slowly with one tiny rule and experiment with it in one locality," Braude said.