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Funding by AQMD Is Assailed : Environment: Agency will award $10 million for clean air programs aimed at lowering vehicle emissions. But critics question the merit of many of the costly plans.


A fund of more than $10 million, designed to help local governments lower vehicle emissions, has been targeted by critics as an expensive "boondoggle" that would do little to improve the quality of air in the Southland.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District received 310 proposals for a chunk of the funding, which comes from a $4 surcharge on all vehicle registrations. The district's board is scheduled to give final approval to 62 programs today.

Now in its second year, the program is supposed to finance innovative plans and help local governments pay for requirements of new air quality rules. But among the proposals to be approved are a bimonthly newsletter that will cost $222,575--or $37,955 per issue--and a program of traffic light synchronization in western San Bernardino County that other cities are doing on their own. It costs about $4,000 per light.

Another proposal is for a phone-in service that drivers can call for route and traffic information, similar to a service offered by PacTel Cellular. A certification course in transportation planning offered by UC Riverside Extension is also being considered. It will cost about $1,900 per student, five times the cost of a similar program at UCLA.

"We're so desperate to apply the money to help cities and counties to grapple with the air quality management plan," said AQMD board member Sabrina S. Schiller, who called the disbursement a "boondoggle" at the board's November meeting. "Piddling it away on these things breaks my heart."

Judy Hathaway-Francis, chairwoman of the independent committee that sifted through the 310 proposals before recommending 62 to the AQMD board, did not return telephone calls.

Bill Kelly, an AQMD spokesman, said last year's funding decision generated little controversy. "I would suspect that, on this type of thing, there would always be (concerns about) particular proposals."

Although more than 60% of the air pollution in the South Coast Air Basin comes from cars, trucks and buses, the money to support air quality measures has traditionally come from fees and fines on businesses and industry, known as stationary sources.

In 1990, legislation was passed authorizing a fee on motor vehicle registrations to fund programs to cut vehicle pollution. The fees--which have been raised to $4 from the initial $2--are collected by the Department of Motor Vehicles and distributed by the AQMD. Last year about $6.7 million was used to fund 42 proposals.

None of the program's detractors criticizes the idea of funding anti-pollution measures, and many of the proposals likely to be passed are admirable, they say. But the list of 62--to be funded at levels ranging from about $5,000 to nearly $400,000--is punctuated with ideas that are "questionable" and "outrageous," said Schiller and other critics.

Several pointed to the bimonthly newsletter proposed by Paine & Associates, a Costa Mesa public relations firm. There is no line-item veto by the AQMD board, so if the package of proposals is approved as recommended, Paine & Associates would get $222,575 for its project.

"That's about $37,000 per issue," said Paul Staples, president of an alternative energy firm called Clean Air Now, which was turned down in its bid for funding. "I could probably produce it on my desktop publishing system for a fraction of the cost. I could do a year for $37,000."

But David Paine, president of Paine & Associates, said his project is being unfairly characterized. He called his proposal, which is primarily meant to push car-pooling to commuters who work for small companies, "an incredibly complex, complicated behavioral modification program that includes a newsletter . . . an oversized four-color tabloid. This is an excellent project."

The UC Riverside Extension's certification program in transportation planning, which would cost about $1,900 per student, drew fire from Joel Schwartz, staff scientist for the environmental group Coalition for Clean Air. Schwartz, whose coalition was turned down for funding, said that UCLA Extension offers a certificate in transportation demand management for $375.

But Jon Kindschy, a continuing education specialist at UC Riverside, said there are differences in the two programs. The UCLA program, he said, is intended to train transportation coordinators at large companies. His program "is for city and county and Caltrans planners, a different audience," he said. "This is tantamount to a master's degree in transportation planning."

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