State scales back plan to reduce auto emissions

October 15, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

Stung by complaints from Maryland businesses, the state is searching for a kinder and gentler way of getting Baltimore-area commuters to quit driving their cars.

The fourth-smoggiest urban area in the country, Baltimore is required by the federal Clean Air Act to reduce solo commuting in the city and surrounding counties by 1996.

Auto exhaust contributes to smog, or ground-level ozone, which causes breathing problems for many people.

The Maryland Department of the Environment earlier this year devised a "trip reduction" plan that would reduce the level of vehicle emissions in the metropolitan area. But the proposed rules were greeted with such distaste that the department has scaled back its plan.

Gone is one requirement that some employers complained might make them discriminate against hiring people who live far from work. Added is a pledge by the state not to penalize any HTC business that makes a "good-faith effort," yet fails to do enough to get its workers to share rides or take public transportation.

Even the name of the plan has been changed to sound less threatening. What used to be called the "Employer Trip Reduction" program is now the "Employee Commute Option" program.

"I like it because people seem to think we're requiring different things, and we're not," said Susan Wierman, acting state air management director. The changes are intended to make the rules more palatable to businesses not used to this type of regulation, she said.

Some businesses are complaining that the rules are still too harsh. It could cost $40 to $200 per employee to comply under the revised plan, according to preliminary state estimates.

The commuting regulations are aimed at fighting the Baltimore area's summertime smog by reducing the number of cars and trucks on the road in the morning. About 60 percent of the smog-forming pollutants released in the region come from motor vehicles, according to state estimates.

But businesses have bridled since the state first unveiled its regulations last summer, complaining that they are too costly and more complicated than federal law requires.

Under the rules, as many as 1,749 employers of 100 or more in the Baltimore area would be required to survey their work force and come up with a plan by November 1994 for boosting the average occupancy of vehicles driven to work by 25 percent. Setting up car pools, encouraging mass transit and scheduling staggered work hours are just some of the options, state officials say.

The rules apply in the city and in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Harford and Howard counties. There are no plans at this time to include the Maryland suburbs of Washington, since that city's smog is not as severe as Baltimore's.

In response to complaints, the state has simplified the paperwork and reporting businesses must do, and it has dropped one controversial requirement that employers not allow any increase in the average daily commute of its work force.

"We got a lot of questions from employers, like: 'Does this mean I can't hire employees who live far from the work site?' " said Leslie Sipes, state chief of operations and quality assurance. "We weren't prepared to address questions like that at this time, so we dropped that."

Richard Cole, manager of environmental services for Genstar Stone Products Co., based in Hunt Valley, said the rules still pose a "burden for industry."

"Really and truthfully, we want it to work," he said. But he estimated that "90 percent of my employees come to work in pickup trucks. It's going to be tough."

Employers are worried they could be sued if there is an accident involving a company-sponsored car pool, Mr. Cole said. Businesses also want the rules made more flexible to allow them to coordinate efforts at their various work sites.

The state is still fine-tuning the plan, and may not be finished until early next year. The Clean Air Act requires the rules be in force by Nov. 15, and Maryland could lose federal highway construction funds or face limits on new industrial development if it misses the deadline.

But Ms. Wierman said she expected to finish writing the regulations before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could impose such sanctions. And she noted that the EPA has not given states the guidance they need to write the rules.

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