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Air Quality Panel Proposes Alternatives to Car Pools : Smog: Plan for Southland includes financial incentives and auto buybacks. But EPA may mount a legal challenge.

November 19, 1994|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Backing away from its pioneering and strict ride-sharing rule, the board of Southern California's air quality agency voted Friday in favor of a more flexible strategy to make it cheaper and easier for employers to reduce auto emissions.

If the agency formally adopts the set of proposed alternatives, employers by next summer could begin replacing or supplementing their ride-sharing programs with several options, such as installing sensors in their parking lots to identify which vehicles are the worst polluters.

Over the last seven years, the South Coast Air Quality Management District's stringent car-pooling rule has become a model for smog-choked cities across the country, but it has been a bane to local employers who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying, with mixed results, to change employees' commuting habits.

Board member Marvin Braude, a Los Angeles City Councilman, characterized the existing rideshare rule Friday as "expensive, cumbersome and ineffective."

The air quality agency's new direction, however, could face legal opposition from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because the concept behind the Southern California ride-share mandate was included in the 1990 Clean Air Act.

While the ride-sharing mandate tries to get cars off the road by altering commuters' behavior, the proposed alternatives focus more on making cars run cleaner. Although reduced emissions are the ultimate aim of the Clean Air Act, the EPA told the air quality district in a recent letter that its alternate plan will not pass muster unless more attention is paid to decreasing car trips and miles traveled.

The proposed AQMD alternatives were drawn up by a task force of 85 business and community leaders from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The alternatives include charging employers a lump sum based on the number of drivers who are employed and using the money to finance research into the development of emission-free vehicles, setting up buyback programs for firms to acquire and scrap heavily polluting vehicles, and imposing parking fees on solo drivers and using the proceeds to reward employees who car-pool.

The air quality district, along with the Southern California Assn. of Governments, is also looking into a pricing strategy that would attempt to influence driving habits by imposing a tax on motorists based on annual miles driven.

Henry W. Wedaa, the air district's chairman, insisted that the agency is not weakening its commitment to clean air but rather "putting a lot of different options on the table so that companies don't have to do just one thing."

Adopted in 1987, the air district's ride-sharing rule covers 5,200 work sites in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. The purpose of the rule is to increase average rush-hour ridership to 1.5 passengers per car. So far, the average number has risen to 1.31 passengers, from 1.13 seven years ago. According to the air quality district, of the 1.273-million employees covered by the rule, 370,000 share rides to work.

The rule requires firms with more than 100 employees to establish detailed programs that encourage car-pooling, mass transit use and other ways of getting to work. In order to comply, companies have subsidized train and bus tickets for workers, formed van pools and offered free parking to people who don't drive alone. The average cost per employee ranges from $40 to $105, according to the air district. Altogether, it is estimated that employers pay $160 million each year to comply with the rule.

Although the air district's staff contends that progress has been made under the rule, they say the alternatives are needed if additional progress is to be made.

"The feeling is that we have reached a plateau," said Bill Kelly, an agency spokesman. "You reach a point where people who are going to ride-share are doing it. To get others to do it may become much more difficult and costly."

At the same time, the agency's executive officer, James Lents, disagreed with the contention of some on the board that the ride-sharing rule amounted to a failed experiment.

"Los Angeles is one of the few places in the nation where (ride-sharing) has been going up," Lents said.

Perhaps the most controversial alternative advanced Friday is the proposal for sensors to sniff out grossly polluting cars in company parking lots.

Environmentalists as well as the EPA said the strategy is unacceptable in part because nothing in the proposal would compel the owner of an offending vehicle to do anything about the problem.

"Having remote sensing is not enough without a backup system for enforcing emission standards," said Dennis Zane, director of the Santa Monica-based Coalition for Clean Air.

Hugh Hewitt, the Orange County lawyer who headed the alternatives task force, said he disagreed with the EPA's interpretation of the Clean Air Act and said he thought the air district should adopt the alternatives despite the EPA's cautionary letter.

"My preferred approach is to go ahead with it and let people sue," he said.

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