EPA backs off on regulations for commuting

July 13, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Heeding a business outcry in Maryland and other states, federal officials have retreated from tough demands on employers in the smoggiest urban areas to curb single-car commuting by their workers.

The move by the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to ease the pinch of the unpopular commuting program in Baltimore and other cities, including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. EPA now says that employers need only try to change workers' driving habits during late spring and summer, not year-round as originally required.

About 2,000 Baltimore-area employers are affected. Shortening the period when they must offer workers incentives to car pool or take the bus could save the companies an estimated $40 million or more a year.

"The savings are just humongous," said Robert G. Smith, a lawyer representing several major local employers, including Maryland National Bank, the Merry-Go-Round clothing store chain, and the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory. Mr. Smith has lobbied EPA to drop the year-round requirement.

In another major concession, EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner has promised that businesses will not be prosecuted or fined if they fail to persuade workers to leave their cars at home -- provided the employers make a "good-faith" effort.

"Clearly, it's going to reduce cost because you just have to perform some minimum measures to be considered acting in good faith," said Merrylin Zaw-Mon, air management director for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The state actually draws up the commuter regulations, to comply with federal law.

Though pleased with EPA's action, business groups would like further concessions, because employers still might have to spend $50 or more annually per worker to comply with regulations.

"Nobody likes them," said Ernie Kent, vice president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "They're more acceptable, but still a very burdensome and expensive program."

Under the state regulations, to be submitted to EPA this month, all companies with more than 100 employees in the Baltimore metropolitan area must develop plans for reducing by 25 percent the number of people driving alone to work.

The plans, which could affect more than 700,000 local employees, are to take effect in October 1995.

In revising the federal Clean Air Act in 1990, Congress mandated commuting curbs for the nation's nine smoggiest urban areas. Commuting was targeted because morning rush-hour emissions from automobiles contribute to formation of ozone, the chief ingredient in smog.

Ozone, which can cause breathing problems and lung damage in many people, is formed on hot sunny days when hydrocarbons and nitrogen dioxide combine in the air. Baltimore and the counties around it have the sixth highest summertime ozone levels in the country, according to EPA.

Local companies are especially worried that they will lose dTC workers and business to neighboring Washington, which does not have to set up commuting programs even though it has the 10th smoggiest air in the country.

Maryland has missed a federal deadline for adopting the required commuting rules, and EPA has threatened the state with loss of federal highway funds unless regulations are forthcoming soon. The state now intends to submit the rules by Tuesday and plans to create a task force to help businesses set up commuting programs.

The EPA says federal law does not require individual workers to change their commuting habits, but it does require employers to offer incentives so employees will stop driving alone.

Such incentives could range from something as simple as coordinating

ride-sharing to providing a fleet of vans.

Environmentalists said they were disappointed that EPA has scaled back the commuting program.

Federal and state officials have insisted that commuting programs do not need to be expensive and could reap benefits, such as employee savings in gasoline.

But many businesses have predicted that the program will be too costly, a paperwork nightmare and unpopular with their employees.

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