Los Angeles Times
Thursday, January 13, 2000
Home Edition
Section: PART A
Page: A-1

{Thanks to Daniel J. Bocek for bringing this article to ET's attention. Remy C. ET Ed.)

AQMD Plans to Push Public Fleets to Use Cleaner Fuels

Pollution: Controversial rule would wean buses, trucks and cars from diesel and gasoline to reduce cancer risk. Critics question proposal's cost, feasibility.


Expanding its fight against smog into uncharted and controversial territory, the Southland's air quality agency is planning a regulation that would transform fleets of public vehicles--from school buses to garbage trucks--into state-of-the-art fleets powered by electricity, natural gas or other clean-burning fuels.

The proposal by the South Coast Air Quality Management District is the first of its type in the nation, and it could have a far-reaching impact on the kinds of buses, trucks and cars that public agencies and some private companies operate in the Los Angeles region.

Aimed at 62,000 vehicles in government-owned fleets throughout the region as well as an unknown number of privately owned fleets at airports, the mandate would be a step toward weaning Southern California off diesel and high-polluting gasoline engines. The bulk of the region's air pollution comes from vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel.

If the proposal is adopted by the district board in April, all government agencies that operate 15 or more vehicles in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties would have to buy clean-burning vehicles whenever they add or replace vehicles. That covers city, county, state and federal agencies as well as school districts, universities and transit districts and their private contractors.

The mandate also applies to privately owned fleets of taxis, shuttles and other vehicles that carry people or cargo to and from the region's airports.

The proposed rule is considered heavy-handed by some municipal leaders, school administrators, transit officials and trucking companies, who worry about the high cost and limited availability of alternative-fuel vehicles. The air quality district is still calculating the economic impact of its proposal.

The measure is so novel that it is causing more uproar and raising more questions than any other AQMD rule in recent years. An unusually large crowd of about 350 people overflowed from the AQMD's auditorium Wednesday at an all-day workshop to discuss details of the proposal.

Air district Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein called the proposal "a very, very important policy initiative" because it would reduce not only smog but also the cancer threat posed by vehicle exhaust.

Thomas Conner, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority executive, cautioned, however, "We need to go in with our eyes open that there is a cost associated with this. We would like [the AQMD] to help us find the funding to make up the incremental cost."

Under the provisions, new buses, trucks and cars in the fleets would have to be equal or lower in emissions than methanol vehicles. Today, the major technologies that qualify are natural gas, electric batteries and fuel cells, although some new low-emission gasoline-powered cars such as the 2000
Toyota Camry and some new Honda Accords also comply.

A broad array of public vehicles, from postal trucks and city street sweepers to airport parking lot shuttles, would be covered by the proposed fleet rule. Police cars and other emergency vehicles would be exempt.

The AQMD decided to target fleets after a study last year showed that vehicles are responsible for 90% of the cancer risk posed by the Los Angeles region's air pollutants. Diesel trucks, which emit tiny soot particles that have been linked to lung cancer, are blamed for the majority of the risk.

Although regulating vehicle emissions is mostly a state function, an obscure state law gives the air district the authority to regulate public and private fleets of 15 or more vehicles in the four-county region.

Wallerstein set the rule on an unusually fast track, but he said Wednesday that the board's decision, originally scheduled for next month, would be postponed until April.

For urban buses, transit agencies would be required to buy only clean-fuel vehicles as soon as the rule is adopted. For other vehicles, fleets of 100 or more would have until next January and the smaller fleets would face a 2002 deadline.

Consumers today can purchase a wide variety of vehicles powered by cleaner burning fuels--from sporty electric cars to heavy-duty trucks fueled by liquefied natural gas. But they are considerably more expensive, and they don't offer the same conveniences and practical uses as diesel or gasoline.

A bus engine powered by compressed natural gas, for example, costs $35,000 more than an estimated $90,000 diesel engine, and it travels fewer miles between fueling stops.

Many businesses and agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service, the MTA, Super Shuttle and various garbage haulers, already operate large numbers of the alternative vehicles. Urban bus fleets have been the quickest to switch, with about 20% of new buses purchased in U.S. urban areas fueled by non-diesel technologies.

"It can be done . . . and frankly we think it's the right thing to do," said Richard Cromwell, executive director of Sunline Transit District, which has converted its entire fleet of buses in the Palm Springs-Coachella Valley area to natural gas.

Cromwell estimated that the cost for a transit district amounts to only a penny more per mile driven.

"I don't think that's much to pay to save our environment," he said.

However, officials from the Los Angeles-based MTA, which already has the largest clean-fuel bus fleet in the nation, voiced concern that the rule could slow purchase of new buses because the wait for natural gas vehicles can be as long as 18 months. In addition, transit agencies need new fueling
centers that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

School officials from the Santa Clarita, Anaheim and Garden Grove districts, among others, said Wednesday they would be hard hit because they can't afford to buy the more expensive natural gas buses. They also worry that fueling centers are hard to find.

Some school authorities said the rule would force them to delay purchases of new buses and keep old ones longer.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has already bought 33 natural gas school buses using special government air quality grants but that leaves about 2,600 diesel buses it owns or operates through contractors.

Some government subsidies and tax breaks are already available, including $25 million a year in state funds for converting heavy-duty trucks to cleaner technologies.

Only a small number of private trucking businesses would be covered by the rule--those that contract with public agencies or service airports. Yet some of the most strident opposition comes from California's trucking industry.

"If this is adopted, companies could go out of business," said Stephanie Williams of the California Trucking Assn., who urged the AQMD to drop the proposal or face lawsuits.

Williams said the trucking industry's main concern is 3,000 privately owned heavy-duty trucks owned by companies under contract with the U.S. Postal Service.

Oil and engine industries oppose measures that favor alternative fuels because they say gasoline and diesel technology is rapidly improving and will be just as clean in a few years. But air quality officials say the newer technologies are ready today and they just need a jump start to lower the cost and gain consumer acceptance.

The state Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been tightening emissions standards for new cars, trucks and buses. But Wallerstein said that the state and federal regulations are moving too slowly to protect public health.

"Given the magnitude of the cancer risk from motor vehicle pollution, especially diesels, Southern Californians should not have to wait another seven to 10 years for clean diesel engines," he said.

AQMD officials say the main targets of the proposal are diesel buses and trucks, which emit about twice as much air pollutants as natural gas alternatives.

Questions still remain about who would have to comply. For instance, an attorney for the U.S. Postal Service said Wednesday that he believes a provision of the U.S. Clean Air Act may exempt all federal agencies from the local rule.

Several private contractors at Wednesday's session also raised questions about whether their businesses would be covered. Air quality officials said they are working to more clearly define specific provisions of the fleet rule.

Cleaner Fleets

Under a far-reaching regulation proposed by the AQMD, owners of public fleets and some private fleets in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties would have to gradually switch to alternative-fuel cars, trucks and buses.

Here are the main provisions:

Immediately upon adoption of this rule, operators of 15 or more urban buses would have to purchase clean-burning vehicles when adding or replacing buses.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2001, public fleet operators and airport fleet operators of 100 or more vehicles would have to purchase clean-burning models when adding or replacing vehicles.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2002, public or airport fleets of 15 or more would have to purchase clean-burning vehicles when adding or replacing vehicles.

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