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

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.

"We felt we had tried all the options that were there," said Roberta Holden, Fleetwood's employee transportation program coordinator. "To have to sweeten the pot anymore was financially unattractive to us."

Debra Kurlcheck, an environmental affairs specialist at Southern California Edison, argues that ride-share programs do a poor job in cutting smog because many of the same workers who car-pool or take mass transit hop into their cars to run errands once they get home.

"Either we up the ante in terms of incentives or we find other ways of achieving the reductions," said Kurlcheck, whose company spends about $2 million a year on ride-share programs.

Edison and others employers have pushed for what they consider more cost-effective alternatives to reach the air quality district's pollution-reduction targets. Edison, for instance, wants to install electronic sensors in parking lots to find heavily polluting vehicles.

The sensors are among the proposals recommended by an 85-member task force. The district's board next month is scheduled to consider these proposals--which are opposed by various environmental groups--as well as other changes recommended by the district staff.

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But even these proposals fail to provide the relief many employers expected, said Stuart Anderson, administrator of the West Hollywood Transportation Management Organization, which provides advice on ride-sharing.

"Remote sensing is an expensive option," Anderson said. "It's almost as difficult to implement the alternatives" as the current options.

Even with alternatives, many employers say they will still face an uphill fight selling ride-sharing to workers married to the convenience and freedom of the auto.

"I'd take a bus, but it's an hour ride," said Fabienne Smolinski, transportation coordinator at Fluor Corp.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Progress ... At a Cost

Many Southland businesses contend that the South Coast Air Quality Management District's Rule 1501 requiring them to reduce auto congestion is costly and burdensome. The district points out that since the rule went into effect:

The average number of riders per vehicle has increased ...

1994: 1.28

... and fewer workers are commuting alone

Method 1987 1994 Drive alone 81.0% 66.0% Car-pool 11.0 23.0 Van-pool 11.0 2.0 Mass transit 2.0 4.0 Walk 1.0 2.0 Bike 2.0 1.0 Telecommute 1.0 0.3 Alternative workweek 1.0 2.0

Note: Figures apply to employers with more than 100 workers covered by regulation.

Source: South Coast Air Quality Management District

Commuting for Dollars

Every Los Angeles-area employer with more than 100 workers must draw up a plan to reduce auto use. Here are some of the incentive programs Walt Disney Co. offers employees:

* Frequent Freeway Flyer: In this program, each day of ride-sharing earns each employee about $1 toward various gift and merchandise certificates.

* Subsidies: Disney pays 50%, up to $60 a month, of an employee's bus or rail pass or van pool fee.

* Emergency rides home: A car pool or van pool rider can get a free taxi ride home or a rental car.

* Alternative workweeks: Employees can work four-day weeks or other atypical schedules at some sites. Some employees can telecommute.

* Sweepstakes: The company has given away vacations and home computer systems to employees who participate for 20 days during a three-month period.

Pollution Solutions

Air quality regulators are considering various proposals to reduce the cost and paperwork that vehicle-use regulations impose on employers. Under these proposals, employers could:

* Install electronic sensors in parking lots to identify heavily polluting vehicles.

* Buy workers' old and heavily polluting vehicles.

* Impose parking fees on solo drivers and use the proceeds to reward car-poolers.

* Pay a lump sum based on the number of employees who drive. The money would be used for research into emission-free vehicles.

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