Ride-Share Rule Is Out, Fee or Alternative Is In : Transportation: Employers can choose from a variety of methods to reduce pollution or pay a fee per employee.

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Ordered by the Legislature to abolish its pioneering but unpopular effort to coax solo commuters out of their cars, the Southland's air quality board replaced its ride-share rule Friday with a mandate that businesses pay $60 annually per employee or take other steps to cut vehicle pollution.

For the past eight years, employers in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties with more than 100 workers have been required to offer incentives encouraging employee ride-sharing, such as company-run van pools and rebates for train and bus tickets. More than 3,400 public and private employers, encompassing more than 1 million workers, have spent an estimated $130 million per year to comply with the South Coast Air Quality Management District regulation. That includes more than 900 workplaces in Orange County.

The AQMD board had already voluntarily eased many of the requirements in April. Friday, to comply with a new state law outlawing employer ride-share mandates, the board killed the entire regulation.

In its place, after a heated debate, the AQMD board voted 9 to 3 to approve a new measure that requires employers to choose from a variety of options aimed at reducing pollution from motor vehicles.

Most notably, businesses can now opt to pay the AQMD $60 per employee per year, or a "discount" rate of $125 each for three years. The money would be set aside for projects that reduce pollution from motor vehicles, such as scrapping old, high-polluting cars or purchasing clean-fuel public shuttles.

Most companies, government agencies and other employers will find it cheaper and easier to pay into the fund or join projects to scrap cars. However, they still have the option of voluntarily continuing their ride-share programs instead.

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The end of the ride-share rule, one of Southern California's most sweeping and costly anti-smog measures, means the AQMD no longer is forcing employers to try to alter their workers' commuting habits. The region has the nation's worst air pollution, and more than half comes from vehicles, largely during rush-hour commutes.

The ride-share rule has had a significant effect in Orange County. Some of the area's major employers made big investments to comply.

Fluor Corp., for example, cited the district's requirement as a factor in switching to a work schedule that gave employees every other Friday off. Fluor, which also operates van pools, had no immediate comment to AQMD's decision.

Wanda Lee, a senior vice president at PacifiCare Health Systems in Cypress, said she will survey her company's 2,500 employees before deciding what to do in light of AQMD's change.

Lee said PacifiCare spent about $100 per worker annually to comply with the ride-share rule, offering gifts such as silverware, camping equipment and vacation trips to encourage employees to car pool.

Lee said she was pleased with the district's decision, but she noted that it was not a cause for celebration. "I'm not going to jump up and down," she said Friday. "For me, it just means we have more flexibility."

The new rule adopted Friday intentionally does not even include "the R-word"--ride-share--in its title. The ride-share measure was widely despised by businesses and some legislators, who called it an onerous and expensive form of social engineering. Friday's AQMD board meeting drew an unusually large audience of about 400 people.

All 12 board members have long wanted to rescind the rule despite its popularity among some commuters. But most wanted to replace it with a measure that would cut an equivalent amount of pollution. Nearly all of Friday's four-hour debate focused on whether to abolish the mandate outright or enact the substitute regulation.

Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove), who wrote the law that outlaws mandatory employer ride-share programs, criticized the air board for adopting the new alternative. He said the board is violating the intent of his legislation, which was to force the AQMD to eliminate all corporate responsibility for pollution caused by their workers' cars.

Speaking before the board, Hurtt said the new rule "will energize me even more" to target the AQMD for additional legislative changes. The Legislature "decided mandatory ride-share was onerous and egregious and needed to go away. . . . Not substituted, but plain go away," he said.

Hugh Hewitt, a conservative Orange County attorney who represents Gov. Pete Wilson on the AQMD board, agreed. Calling the new rule a "flagrant disregard" of the Legislature's intent, Hewitt encouraged the filing of a lawsuit against the AQMD board and said he will work with legislators to restructure the agency.

"We will not only invite the contempt of the Legislature, we will have earned it," Hewitt said, adding, "the Legislature intended for us to kill the whole damn thing."

Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), however, disagreed in a statement read at the meeting Friday. He said the Legislature intended to leave some measure in place to address pollution from commuters' vehicles.

Most AQMD board members, while favoring an end to the ride-share rule, wanted to compensate for 12,000 tons of air pollution that the programs reportedly eliminate annually in the four counties. The federal Clean Air Act requires the region to cut two-thirds of its smog-causing pollutants by 2010 to achieve national health standards. Also, the act requires all severely smoggy U.S. areas to have rules aimed at reducing employee trips.

"People are dying out there and getting sick out there because of the quality of our air," said AQMD board member and Los Angeles Councilman Marvin Braude. "If we take [this rule] off business, we have to do it some other way."

Mee Hae Lee, a Warner Bros. attorney appointed to the AQMD board by the state Senate Rules Committee, said that without the new regulation, the board would "leave the air quality worse than how we found it."

Over the past year, the AQMD board has eased existing requirements on businesses but has not adopted any major rules requiring new smog reductions.

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Ride-sharing increased among the 1.2 million workers covered by the rule, according to AQMD data. In 1987, average ridership per car was 1.13 among those workers, compared with 1.28 in 1994, which amounts to 240,000 fewer daily trips on Southland roads. That achievement, however, fell far short of the AQMD's goal of 1.5 people per vehicle.

AQMD officials had no separate statistical breakdown of how well Orange County employers have complied with the requirement. According to AQMD surveys, Orange County workers averaged the shortest commute; their typical one-way commute was 14.4 miles, compared with a little more than 15 for Los Angeles County workers.

On average, Orange County freeways are clogged with 9 million car trips daily, with commuters accounting for 22% of this total.

Allowing companies to opt to open their wallets to contribute to clean air rather than persuade workers to leave their cars at home is expected to give Southland businesses a major cost break. They have spent on average nearly twice as much on ride-share programs--an average of $110 per employee annually--as they will under the new "buy-out" option.

Under the new rule, the money put into the fund must finance projects that bring emission reductions at least equivalent to the ride-share programs' results.

"There's no reason to force companies to have ride-share programs if they can cut the same amount of pollution at a cheaper price," said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood.

AQMD board members would like to put the responsibility for cutting rush-hour trips on commuters, rather than employees, so they are searching for a new approach that would take aim at the motorist directly. Local government and business leaders are crafting ideas, such as a car registration fee based on miles driven, that could go into effect within three years.

Employers on Friday overwhelmingly welcomed elimination of the rule, and several local businesses voiced support for the replacement rule.

Times staff writer Don Lee contributed to this report.

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