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Car Pools in Troubled Waters : Despite incentives, many businesses doubt they'll meet traffic-reduction targets because of their employees' varied schedules and the paucity of public transit

March 28, 1995|JESUS SANCHEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After buying two small buses and hiring drivers, the Cal State Fullerton Shuttle chugged into service in 1989 as part of the university's effort to comply with traffic and pollution-reduction regulations.

Three years later, however, the shuttle--which was supposed to ferry campus workers from surrounding neighborhoods--shut down, a costly failure. It turns out the workers were not about to wait for the shuttle when they could drive to campus in a few minutes.

"We ended up with four full-time riders," said Paulette Himmel, the college commuter services program coordinator. "It was just a bust."

The shuttle's failure is one of the many painful and costly lessons learned by Los Angeles-area employers trying to implement a controversial and much-maligned regulation to reduce air pollution by getting more employees to car-pool, ride-share or work from home.

Employers spend $160 million annually to comply with the 7-year-old law, but wonder if that is well spent. Many say they must spend more each year on programs and incentives to get workers to abandon solo commuting. Some employers doubt if they will ever meet the traffic-reduction targets established by the rule, given workers' often unpredictable schedules and the lack of convenient public transit.

"We have some responsibility to assist with the problems of the community," said Harold Pierce, vice president of human resources at Santa Ana-based Ingram Micro, a distributor of microcomputer products. "What bothers us is, are we getting enough bang for our buck? Can that money be better used elsewhere?"

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has hailed Rule 1501, which reduced auto emissions by 90 tons a day, as a crucial weapon to fight air pollution. But they concede it has been a tough burden on many employers.

"Businesses have complained long and loud that this is the worst rule that we have," said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the district, which is currently reviewing proposals to make the rule more flexible and less costly. "We have made a lot of progress. But there seems to have been a plateau in increasing vehicle ridership and reducing pollution."

Under Rule 1501, organizations with more than 100 workers are required to establish a traffic-reduction plan and eventually meet rush-hour ridership targets, ranging from 1.3 passengers per vehicle for employers located in small desert communities to 1.75 for employers in Downtown Los Angeles. The average ridership reached 1.28 last year, up from 1.13 in 1987.

The more than 5,000 private and public employers that fall under the rule can be fined for failing to comply. The AQMD has levied more than $1.3 million in fines, primarily for failure to submit ride-share plans.

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Despite misgivings, many employers remain supportive of the regulation. Similar rules are popping up across the country, said Kris McNamara, manager of environmental programs at Walt Disney Co.

"Southern California is the guinea pig," McNamara said.

Employers have explored telecommuting, increased parking fees and days off with pay to boost their ride-share figures. The Irvine-based engineering company Fluor Corp. spent $30,000 to build a bicycle storage and dressing room. NILS Publishing Co. of Chatsworth arranged for a dry-cleaning pickup and delivery service at the office.

The incentives are popular among many commuters, who have come to regard them as a company benefit. For riding the train from home in Simi Valley to work in Pasadena, Kaiser Permanente payroll worker Norma Wozniak earns meal coupons, daily points redeemable for gifts, a $25-a-month rail pass subsidy and a free van ride between the office and train station.

"It's a good deal," said Wozniak, who plans to redeem her points for a weekend trip to Santa Barbara.

But wooing solo commuters and keeping them in the fold has proven tougher and more expensive than expected. Some experiments, like that at Cal State Fullerton, have been costly mistakes.

Employers have also discovered that they must continually update programs and often spend more money on incentives to keep workers involved in ride-sharing. After starting out by offering coupons for vehicle tuneups, Kaiser Permanente expanded its program to offer a wide variety of incentives, ranging from Nordstrom gift certificates to portable stereos.

"Things had gotten stagnant and plateaued," said Loretta Tatum, manager of the regional commuter services department at Kaiser Permanente. "There are only so many times you can give them a Ralphs certificate before they don't care."

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Some employers have found it necessary to simply change their work hours to achieve the goals. In Riverside, recreational vehicle maker Fleetwood Enterprises had met ridership targets at all but one facility: the corporate headquarters. The large number of workers with often long and unpredictable hours were resistant to giving up solo commutes.

So Fleetwood put the headquarters on a nine-hour workday and closes it every other Friday to reduce vehicle trips.

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