Don't Pit Us Against Them

October 17, 1993

With the expected political chauvinism stripped away, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's recent cry of foul over tougher auto-traffic controls for the Baltimore area, while Washington escapes any commuter curbs, echoes legitimate concerns about the impact of the federal Clean Air Act.

The 25 percent reduction in rush-period commuter traffic expected of employers in the greater Baltimore region by 1996 is necessary to reduce harmful, auto-caused air pollution. Ozone, which can cause respiratory problems for many people, is high in this area, the sixth worst in the nation.

The Baltimore region (which includes Cecil County) has a choice, albeit a bitter one: It can crack down on industrial/commercial emissions, paralyzing economic growth. The less disruptive option is to cut job-commuter trips at rush hours.

Still, one has to wonder why Washington -- the 10th worst ozone region, with perpetual auto gridlock and legendary Foggy Bottom haze -- is exempt from curbs to ease the air that surely wafts its way northwestward to greater Baltimore.

This is not to argue for a level playing field in economic development. Rather, it argues for closer scrutiny of air pollution sources in this larger Balt/Wash metro area. If Midwestern power plants create acid rain disaster in the Northeast, surely the noxious fumes from Washington commuter autos do not remain inside the Capital Beltway.

These are the money issues that thwart regionalism, exposing raw nerves of economic competition. If northern Virginia can lure business by exploiting fewer commuter curbs, greater Baltimore will end up a loser -- though they are technically in the Census Bureau's same metro area. Taxes stop at state lines, and the economic ripples disappear, even as the foul air flows over boundaries.

Like most of the air-pollution control schemes over the past two decades, the commuter program for Baltimore will be refined and modified to make it less draconian. Yet improvements in air quality will also be achieved. Reasonable adjustments should be given employers, who must also make reasonable adjustments in work schedules.

Flex-time, telecommuting, staggered shifts, four-day weeks are ways to reduce commuter peak-hour auto use without destroying a business; they can also offer advantages for employees. Cleaner autos and fuels, also a federal mandate, will help meet cleanup goals. So will expanded mass transit.

"Don't pit us against them," Mr. Schaefer pleaded to Washington. He's right, just as long as Maryland counties in both regions make a committed effort to clean up the air we all must breathe.

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