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Bill Would Fund Replacement of Polluting Cars : Environment: Measure passed by the Legislature would pay up to $500 for a clunker, then $4,800 toward purchase of a new, clean-running car. The governor has not decided whether to sign it.

September 16, 1993|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Reaching for innovative tactics in the struggle for clean air, the Legislature wants to give motorists in the smoggiest regions of California up to $5,300 each to junk their smoky old clunkers and replace them with low-polluting new cars.

According to a bill being considered by Gov. Pete Wilson, the voluntary "remove and replace" enterprise would be financed by purchasers of new cars, and not general taxpayers. Supporters say the measure could result in the removal of tons of vehicle exhaust pollutants from the air.

The car purchase system is contained in a "sleeper" bill by Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco). Kopp cautiously steered his bill to Wilson's desk by avoiding political minefields that trapped more ambitious anti-smog efforts in the recently concluded legislative session.

Wilson has not decided whether to sign it into law, aides said. It sailed through the Assembly on a lopsided 70-2 vote and won 23-12 approval in the Senate.

It would apply to the vast South Coast Air Basin of Southern California, and areas in and around Bakersfield, Fresno and Sacramento. All are among the smoggiest areas of the state and have failed to meet federal clean air standards.

Under the plan, purchasers of new "low-polluting," "ultra-low-polluting" and "zero-polluting" cars would pay $50 to $100 to exempt their vehicles from their first required smog inspection after purchase. Such examinations occur two or three years after purchase as a condition of registration renewal.

The state Air Resources Board has estimated that, statewide, smog checks cost motorists about $21 to $25. Aides to Kopp conceded that the cost of participating in the program would be higher, but they said it would be offset by convenience and time saved.

Kopp said it is "nonsense" to require the owner of a new car to submit the vehicle to its first smog check only two years after its purchase. He noted that these vehicles typically pass the inspections.

Funds paid to exempt new cars from inspections would be made available to help pay for new car purchases or for the repair or scrapping of "gross-emitting" vehicles. The owner of a junked vehicle would be paid its market value, up to $500. If the motorist then decided to buy a new, low-polluting replacement car, the state additionally would contribute $100 a month toward the purchase price for up to 48 months.

To qualify for the program, a scrapped vehicle would have to have been registered in one of the four smoggiest regions and have been owned by the same motorist for two years.

Although the bill does not specify a start-up date, the program probably would get under way sometime next year and be operated by the state Bureau of Automotive Repair. By then, there would be enough money in the pool of funds from smog check exemption fees to start paying for the program.

The Air Resources Board would decide which new cars would qualify for the purchase subsidy as low, ultra-low and zero polluters. These emission standards already have been established and some prototypes of certain models have been certified as meeting them, board spokesman Bill Sessa said.

Under board rules, all manufacturers must meet the standards with all their cars by the 1996 model year, he noted.

Currently, natural gas and propane vehicles typically are ultra-low polluters. Electric cars are rated as zero polluters.

Kopp noted that the Unocal oil company experimented with a similar program in the Los Angeles Basin during the summer of 1991. Nearly 8,400 pre-1971 cars were purchased from owners for $700 each.

The company reported that the project removed about six tons of pollutants from the air, or twice as much as projected. The Air Resources Board estimates that statewide about 1,500 tons of pollution a day are blown out of exhaust pipes.

The Kopp bill for the first time would put the state in the business of financing the purchase of cleaner new cars.

He said that because the proposal has never been tried statewide, it is difficult to estimate how many drivers would participate or how much cleaner the air would be.

"(Some) people will participate almost immediately," predicted Kopp, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "(But) it will take a couple of years to affect air quality."

Support for the bill cut across party lines and included such conservative Republicans as Sen. John Lewis of Orange, who typically votes against creation of new government programs.

Lewis, a severe critic of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said he voted for the bill chiefly because it invited voluntary rather than mandatory participation and because it promises to be effective.

Lewis said he investigated boasts by officials of the South Coast district that their controversial trip reduction programs were meeting with success.

"We looked at the cost versus the pollutants reduced and compared that with what the Unocal program had done," Lewis said. "It turns out the Unocal program was 30 times more cost-effective than the programs that the South Coast bureaucrats had come up with."

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