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Legislative Panel OKs Compromise on Ride-Sharing


SACRAMENTO — Scaling back an air cleanup program unpopular with business, a legislative panel hammered out a compromise bill Wednesday to free many Southland firms of responsibility for employee ride-sharing and other programs to reduce pollution from motor vehicles.

The bill by Sen. John Lewis (R-Orange) was approved on a 6-0 vote by a Senate-Assembly conference committee and now goes to the floors of both houses for anticipated ratification this week.

Lewis' measure would force yet another retrenchment by the Southland's air quality board, which has been under assault by conservative lawmakers angry over the smog-fighting burden they say the agency dumps on businesses.

Under pressure last year, the South Coast Air Quality Management District ushered in a new policy that allowed firms to choose from a menu of options for improving the air. Those include traditional employee ride-sharing programs or paying an annual $60 fee per employee to finance scrapping older high-polluting vehicles, purchasing clean-fuel public shuttles or other anti-smog programs.

Despite such options, 80% of the businesses chose to stick with the ride-sharing efforts they had in place.

Lewis has long sought to scrap ride-sharing requirements for all businesses in Southern California, but he agreed to a compromise proposal during negotiations this week brokered by Sen. Patrick Johnston. The Stockton Democrat was the swing vote on the conference committee.

The compromise bill would eliminate vehicle-related smog-fighting mandates for more than 2,700 Southland businesses with fewer than 250 employees for an 18-month trial beginning Jan. 1. Those firms employ 321,000 workers.

The bill also earmarks $1.5 million in AQMD funds for promotion of voluntary ride-sharing among employees at the firms.

If the voluntary efforts prove as effective in reducing pollutants as the current business mandate, the program will be expanded to include firms with fewer than 500 employees. And if that is a success after another 18-month trial, mandatory AQMD requirements for all Southland businesses to help reduce vehicle pollution would be eliminated.

But as with many legislative solutions passed down from California's Capitol, the devil could be in the details. Foes and supporters alike worry about possible disputes over the effectiveness of the program, a critical factor in determining whether to return to at least some level of mandatory rules.

Supporters of ride-sharing also decried further attempts to eliminate the program.

"It's a pity that Lewis has felt the need to target a successful program," said Tim Carmichael, policy director of the Coalition for Clean Air. "It doesn't seem necessary. It's not good."

National carpool studies have shown that mandatory requirements typically result in a 24% participation level. Voluntary programs usually produce 7% participation.

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