Moving toward overhauling one of its most far-reaching and unpopular efforts to combat smog, the Southland's air quality board on Friday formed a task force to search for new ways to remove solo commuters from the region's roads.
The decision by the South Coast Air Quality Management District board was applauded by many businesses that have complained for years that they have unfairly had to shoulder the burden of trying to revolutionize the way Southern Californians commute.
In addition to forming the task force, the board voted to allow businesses to delay implementing new ride-sharing incentives as long as they still meet their current goals. The agency's enforcement staff also was directed to issue warning notices--instead of imposing fines--when businesses do not fulfill ride-sharing requirements, unless the violations are "clearly flagrant."
Under the AQMD's ride-share rule adopted six years ago, companies in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties with more than 100 employees must establish programs that encourage employees to car-pool, take mass transit or use other means of getting to work.
Covering 5,200 companies with 1.3 million employees, the groundbreaking rule has been one of the AQMD's most ambitious efforts to fight smog. Its goal is to increase rush-hour ridership to an average of 1.5 people per car. To comply, companies must subsidize train and bus tickets for employees, form van pools and offer free parking or other incentives to car-poolers.
The rule has been unpopular because thousands of offices and other non-industrial businesses must spend large amounts of money to create elaborate ride-share plans. Collectively, employers in the four-county area spend about $160 million a year on the programs, according to one recent study done for the AQMD.
The AQMD's effort to revamp its program will be monitored nationally because dozens of other smoggy cities have begun to model ride-sharing regulations on Southern California's.
AQMD Board Chairman Henry W. Wedaa, a Yorba Linda councilman who spearheaded the effort to review the regulation, said the new task force will face the challenge of coming up with less costly and onerous ways to persuade commuters to leave their cars at home.
Members of the task force will be appointed by the AQMD board. Its size and makeup has yet to be determined.
But a number of ideas for revamping the program have surfaced. Among them is setting auto registration fees according to the number of miles driven, or charging motorists for driving during peak traffic hours. Such efforts, however, would require new state laws.
Wedaa stressed that the AQMD cannot abandon or weaken the program because state and federal laws require the agency to remove a large number of cars from Southland roads by the end of the decade.
"We are not scaling it back. I am not a supporter of that," said Wedaa. "But I am a supporter of supplying more options to obtain the same goals."
Before voting unanimously for the task force, several board members advocated rescinding the ride-share regulation completely. Its strongest critic on the board is Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who called it an excessive case of "Big Brother" government imposing its will on private businesses.
"We're regulating the wrong people," agreed Stephen Albright, an AQMD board member who was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson. "We're regulating the employer, who has no authority to force the employee (to ride-share)."
Other board members, however, hailed the regulation as an efficient and relatively inexpensive way to reduce smog, compared with other, harsher options.
"What are we going to substitute instead? What is the cost to society . . . if we scrap this program entirely?" asked AQMD board member and Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude.
Wedaa said the task force "can't just throw rocks, you have to come up with solutions."
Board member Harriett M. Wieder, an Orange County supervisor, said she did not "want the task force to be an excuse for studying it to death and going back to business as usual."
Although AQMD staff members acknowledge that the ride-share rule is unwieldy and time-consuming for businesses, they say it has been one of the most effective methods of reducing smog-causing emissions.
The average number of riders per car has increased to 1.24 from 1.13 when the program was adopted in 1987, according to the AQMD. During that time, the agency estimates that 11 million one-way trips per year have been eliminated in the four counties.
But critics among business leaders and government officials have condemned it as a costly attempt at social engineering that is bound to fail because so many Southland residents depend on their cars.
"We have found it very difficult to sell alternative modes to our employees when the cost of fuel is so low and the available alternatives to the drive-alone mode are so few," said Bill Gemmill, a transportation manager at Continental Airlines.
Gemmill said Continental spends $300,000 annually on a ride-share program for its 4,000 employees in the Los Angeles Basin, and has raised its ridership average to 1.3 people per car from 1.05 a few years ago. But it is still short of the required 1.5.
Others on Friday urged the board to leave the ride-share requirements intact. The rule "is not a failure. (It) does work," said Bruce Roberts, the city of Los Angeles' ride-share program administrator.