Commuters may be forced to curb reliance on autos Clean-air law is to place burden on area employers.

July 17, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Someday soon your boss may tap you on the shoulder and tell you to take a hike.

Or a bike, or a bus, or a carpool.

What the boss won't tell you to do is to keep driving a long distance to and from work alone in your car.

Under a provision of the federal Clean Air Act, Maryland must soon adopt regulations that will require employers of 100 or more in the Baltimore area to get many of their solo drivers off the road.

An estimated 1,500 employers in the Baltimore area are expected to be affected.

Employers who fail to comply would face penalties up to and including thousands of dollars in fines, or, in the unlikely event of a criminal violation, up to two years in jail and a $50,000 fine for repeat offenders.

Environmentalists say Baltimore's air pollution justifies such serious actions. For years, government has tried to encourage commuters to use carpools or take public transit voluntarily, but the Clean Air Act is the first to mandate such behavior.

"Things like this are necessary to wake people up to the fact we have serious air pollution problems," says Judy Brown, a lawyer with the Maryland office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "I don't know anyone who works in Baltimore who could believe there isn't a serious air pollution problem. Just look at the yellow haze."

Baltimore is considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to have air pollution levels among the nation's worst. The chief culprit is ground-level ozone.

"It may come as a surprise, but Baltimore has the sixth-worst air quality in the country," says Leslie E. Sipes, chief of operations and quality assurance for the state Department of the Environment, "and our biggest problem is with automobile pollution."

Ms. Sipes outlined the proposed regulations yesterday at a seminar sponsored by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. The presentation drew a mixed response from about 60 business executives, many of whom were skeptical.

"People are used to driving by themselves and they like that," said Neal Leatherman, manager of a Dundalk plant that makes plastic containers. "It's a shame it's going to take a thick manual of regulations to get people to use mass transit."

The proposed rules, which must be finalized in four months, affect businesses with work sites in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Harford and Howard counties.

Their goal will be to meet the requirements of a formula calling for a 25 percent increase in the ratio of employees to vehicles used to get to work. In other words, if a company has 100 workers using 75 cars to get to work, the employer must change that to 100 workers using 60 cars. And the employer must not allow an overall rise in the average daily mileage of commuting employees.

The draft regulations call on companies to survey their employees by July 1994 to determine how they commute, to come up with a plan by Nov. 15, 1994, on how to reduce work trips, and to meet the 25 percent goal within two years after that.

Employers may choose to encourage car-pooling and van-pooling, use of mass transit, or a high-tech option such as telecommuting that would let people work in or near their own homes. Because the regulations call for fewer trips only between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. -- a critical time for the formation of ozone -- employers can get around the requirement by instituting flex-time or a compressed work week, or by starting the business day at 10:01 a.m.

Flex-time rules would allow employees to work very early or very late shifts some days.State officials said the program could end up costing employers as much as $150 to $200 a year for each employee.

Proponents contend the program could be a net benefit to business. Besides helping clean up the environment, it could cut employees' commuting costs, reduce local traffic congestion and broaden the commuting options for workers. That could prove to be an important benefit for a company which, for instance, is in the suburbs and wants to tap inner-city neighborhoods to fill minimum- and medium-wage jobs.

"I think it's a good program, and I think going through the employers is the way to do it," said Jack Kinstlinger, chairman of KCI Technologies, a planning and engineering consulting firm in Towson. "It's the right thing to do."

If the program is successful, it will have to reverse Maryland's commuting trends. According to the 1990 census, 69.8 percent of the state's work force drives to work alone, an increase from 60.7 percent recorded in 1980. Transit ridership grew more slowly than the labor force over those 10 years and carpooling actually decreased.

The draft rules could extend the program to Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, but only if nearby Virginia or the District of Columbia adopts a similar program. The EPA has rated Washington's air pollution a problem, but not as severe as Baltimore's.

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