Car pool rules may be eased

April 15, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Squeezed between business resistance and looming federal sanctions, Maryland environmental officials have drafted a more lenient plan for getting local commuters out of their cars.

But state officials make it plain that they don't want to impose the controversial commuting program, which has drawn complaints from Baltimore area employers about having to entice their workers to share rides or take the bus.

For at least the third time in the past two years, the Maryland Department of the Environment yesterday gave local business representatives a peek at draft rules aimed at getting 170,000 cars and trucks off Baltimore area roads.

Unlike previous testy sessions, the reaction this time was friendlier, mainly because the plan grants employers more freedom to decide how to reduce solo commuting.

The plan would encourage 1,700 area businesses with 100 or more employees to combine efforts to encourage their workers to leave their cars at home, either through company-sponsored ride sharing or by offering to pay workers a few dollars more to find their own car pooling solutions.

Companies that fail to comply could be fined up to $50,000 a day, but the state would only crack down on firms that do not make a good-faith effort.

Maryland is required by the federal Clean Air Act to try to reduce commuting in the Baltimore area because of its air quality problems. The city and surrounding counties have the sixth worst smog, or ozone pollution, of the nation's urban areas.

The 1990 federal law gives the state until 2005 to eliminate unhealthful levels of ozone in the Baltimore region, and reducing commuting is just one of a host of new pollution controls required.

But earlier state proposals to regulate commuting have sparked bitter protests from local business representatives, who complain of the costs and red tape involved in trying to get workers to change their commuting habits.

Now, with the November 1992 deadline for submitting a plan long past, the state has been warned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it faces possible loss of federal highway construction funds and restrictions on new business development if regulations are not in place by July 1.

The state will formally propose rules in May and hopes to have them in place by August.

To ease business objections, the latest version has been "customized," explained Merrylin Zaw-Mon, the state's air management director

"Flexibility" is the watchword, she said, noting that businesses will be encouraged to work together to offer incentives for employees to leave their cars at home.

"We're trying to make it as simple as possible," said Leslie Sipes, an environmental official who has spent more than two years trying to draft a plan acceptable to local business interests.

Paperwork has been simplified and streamlined, she explained, so employers would fill out only a handful of forms. And businesses may avoid having to survey their work force altogether by relying on commuting data gleaned from the 1990 Census.

In another concession, doctors, nurses and "critical health care workers" at area hospitals will not be required to join in ride-sharing or to take mass transit.

"I'm sure nobody wants their surgeon to walk out in the middle of surgery to catch a bus," said Ms. Sipes.

In response to business complaints, the complex plan would allow businesses that exceed state targets for commuting to sell "credits" to other firms, and it would encourage neighboring businesses to pool their efforts.

Possibly most controversial of all, employers might be allowed to focus their efforts at reducing commuting to the spring and summer season, when smog is at its worst. EPA officials have insisted in the past that any program must be year-round, because driving habits are so hard to change.

"We're not sure if the regulations . . . will be approved by EPA, but we've decided to take that chance," said Ms. Zaw-Mon.

Another hope is that the EPA will let Maryland delay the program until after 1996 and make it voluntary, so that red tape will not cause any loss of businesses to Washington, D.C., where the rules would not apply.

The Clean Air Act does not require commuting curbs in the Washington area because its pollution is less severe than Baltimore's, and Virginia officials have balked at proposals to apply the same rules to the capital region.

Glen Besa, a spokesman for the American Lung Association, said that the state's softening of its commuter requirements will delay clean air in the Baltimore area that much longer. But he also indicated that his group is unlikely to protest the weakening of an unpopular program that even its supporters admit will not reduce pollution very much overall.

"Hey, there's bigger things to fight about," said Mr. Besa.

Business representatives praised the state's efforts to satisfy their objections, though they questioned why it had taken so long.

"Basically, two-thirds of the things now included are suggestions we made two years ago," said Ernie Kent of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

Others said the proposal still is not flexible enough.

"We have 850 workers in downtown Odenton, with no direct line to light rail," said Katrina A. Myers, representing the Nevamar Corp. "We have a couple of people who ride bikes, but we feel we're out of options."

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