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Solving Smog

Los Angeles air is filthy. Each day, some 1,650 tons a day of pollution that causes ozone are emitted, as well as 293 tons per day of particulate matter and 60 tons of sulfur oxides, which form particles downwind. After the federal government canceled the federal one-hour ozone standard earlier this year — which the area was to have met in 2010 — and replaced it with an eight-hour standard that must be met in 2021, the South Coast Air Quality Management District can no longer show exactly what will be needed to clean up the area’s air. It will, however, clearly require lawmakers and regulators to make some bold moves. Key among them will be providing adequate funding for air-pollution control programs and reversing the sprawl that creates auto dependence. New environmental-analysis tools point clearly in this direction, but government must begin using them now to justify bold actions. New technology will be needed too, like hydrogen-powered cars, but it will be slow in coming and is unlikely to clean the air anytime soon. Here are some bold solutions to the region’s air-pollution health crisis. They are based on discussions with leaders in air-pollution control and culled from historical documents and various plans and studies by AQMD, the California Air Resources Board, federal EPA and environmental groups like the Sierra Club. Many of the pollution-reduction figures for these solutions are rough, particularly those concerning sprawl. Yet they show what could be accomplished through new approaches. The total emission reductions here may add up to more pollution than is emitted, showing the untapped potential of creative approaches.

SHAKE US UP Clean House: William Burke, chairman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and Barry Wallerstein, AQMD executive officer, promised clean air and environmental justice when they took over the agency in 1997. Eight years later, the toxicity of the air in Los Angeles is increasing, and progress on ozone has virtually ceased. The district no longer even has a plan showing how it can meet updated federal health standards. The California Air Resources Board has lost focus too, since the departure of its chairman, Alan Lloyd, a Gray Davis appointee. The board is moving slowly to adopt needed regulations. The first thing needed now is for the Legislature to reorganize the AQMD and ARB, expanding their mandate and bringing in new leadership willing to take the strong steps and advocate for the bold changes really needed to achieve environmental justice and healthful air. The Legislature reorganized air-quality programs in the late 1980s and the rejuvenation brought a decade of steady progress, after a period of stagnation earlier in the ’80s. Stagnation has set in once again. So it’s time for lawmakers to shake things up. New people, new ideas, new forms of regional governance, new legal powers and more resources are desperately needed. Benefit to Air: Jump-starting the region’s air cleanup could avoid 41 tons of pollutants a day by speeding adoption of stalled rules. Bring Back the 1984 Olympics Traffic Controls: When Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Olympics, city and AQMD officials kept smog down for athletes by increasing carpools, keeping trucks off the road at rush hour and providing more public transit. AQMD tried to pursue these strategies on a permanent basis in the late 1980s and early 1990s under new authority that the Legislature granted in 1987 over so-called “indirect sources” of air pollution, such as shopping centers, office buildings and warehouses that are magnets for cars and trucks. AQMD, for instance, wanted shopping malls, concert and sports venues, and office-building owners to provide free shuttle buses and incentives to patrons to carpool. When businesses complained, the Legislature removed AQMD’s authority to regulate indirect sources. Given the air-pollution health emergency, it’s time for lawmakers to give that power back. Already, extended port hours initiated earlier this year promise to ease congestion-related pollution by spreading out truck traffic. With indirect source authority, AQMD could bring further improvements by requiring warehousing centers to operate at non-peak traffic hours and shopping malls, stadiums, office complexes, and concert halls to do their part too. The Olympics program cut ozone by 12 percent, according to the federal EPA. Benefit to Air: Translating 1984’s gains into today’s more congested freeways, would bring conservative savings of 198 tons a day. MONEY ITEMS Funding the AQMD: The South Coast Air Quality Management District regulates more businesses than ever, yet its budget and staff levels have been in decline for years. This year, the agency will operate on a budget of $105 million with a staff of 768, down from $108 million last year and a staff of 773. The problem is that as emissions decline from factories, the agency’s emissions-fee revenues decline, undermining its ability to adopt and enforce the ever widening net of regulations and programs needed to finish the job of cleaning Southern California’s air. One solution is to broaden the agency’s base of fees through a modest property-tax add-on throughout the region it serves. With some 5 million structures throughout the region, an assessment amounting to less than a dollar a month for the average property owner would provide plenty of money for the AQMD general fund. The Legislature would have to act to make it happen. More funding for AQMD likely would eliminate untold excess emissions. If non-compliance at businesses policed by the AQMD is just one-fifth as bad as at gas stations, which emit some 10 tons per day of illegal emissions, a substantial amount of pollution would be eliminated once the money began to flow and more inspectors were hired. Benefit to Air: It appears that enforcing current laws could spare our skies and lungs as much as 80 tons a day. Funding Cleanup of the Freight Industry: The cost of fully cleaning up the diesel soot and nitrogen-oxide emissions from the trains, trucks, ships and other heavy vehicles and equipment needed to keep cheap imports flowing is unknown. The Port of Los Angeles estimates that just to keep emissions related to its facilities from growing will cost some $16 billion. Then there is the Port of Long Beach. The Southern California Association of Governments projects that $26 billion of new highways, rail lines and other transportation facilities will be needed to accommodate growth at the region’s ports. Next year, the Legislature should pass a bill by Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) to charge a fee on each container shipped through the port. With a $30 fee per container it would raise almost $400 million a year, adding just pennies to the price of the imported goods. Truckers who haul containers could clean up their trucks with the money. Exploited by big retailers as independent contractors who make about $8 an hour, they cannot afford new rigs themselves. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should vigorously back this bill, which was blocked by shippers and the governor this year. In addition, SCAG is right in calling for any new transportation facilities for shippers to be paid off by tolls. L.A. Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Juanita Millender-McDonald, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, should galvanize a California effort to win more federal money for transportation improvements and other measures that can clean up shipping. Half the goods shipped through here go to the rest of the nation, yet the federal government will pay less than 25 percent of what’s needed to keep the freight rolling, according to SCAG. Regional leaders should seek to reduce port pollution, rather than simply maintain pollution at today’s levels. If pollution from the Port of Long Beach — where emissions are unknown since administrators have never bothered to calculate them — are similar to those from the Port of Los Angeles, there is substantial cleanup potential. Benefit to Air: A crackdown to reduce port pollution by 20 percent could eliminate 30 tons a day. A 40 percent crackdown would double that amount. Funding Retirement of High-Polluting Old Vehicles: Old cars not built to meet today’s tight automotive-emissions standards and often not properly maintained could be repaired to eliminate 51 tons per day of smog-forming emissions by 2010, according to the Air Resources Board. However, most people drive old cars because they cannot afford a new one. The problem could be solved by having drivers of sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks mitigate their added emissions by paying to fix and even replace old vehicles driven by the poor. Half of the region’s vehicles are sport utilities and trucks and while today’s models must meet the same emissions standards as smaller cars, they use twice the gasoline. More oil pumping through refineries and gasoline pumping through nozzles means higher emissions because of the proliferation of SUVs and their high-and-mighty owners. The Legislature could act to place a pollution surcharge on the registration for SUVs. A surcharge of $100 for new SUVs, declining as they age, would bring in a substantial amount of money to clean up and replace the old vehicles, and wouldn’t be onerous for SUV owners. After all, they have taken a $100 increase in their monthly gasoline bill in stride. What’s another $8-and-change a month? Benefit to air: This would reduce pollution by the equivalent of a small Third World nation, or 236 tons a day. Funding Hydrogen Highways: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hydrogen-highways program represents the best long-term path to the zero-emissions vehicles Los Angeles needs to clean its air, reduce its contribution to global warming and dramatically reduce its dependence on fossil fuels as long as the hydrogen is made with renewable energy. However, the way the program is set up, the hydrogen mostly will be made of heavily subsidized fossil fuels that impose massive health costs on the region. The Legislature could level the playing field by placing a nickel-a-gallon tax on gasoline. The money could be used to fund development of solar- and wind-powered hydrogen production facilities and offset tax incentives for motorists to purchase hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered vehicles. If the economics of the program work as planned, the tax would raise almost $800 million a year, enough to fuel and place about a million hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road before 2020, cutting smog-forming emissions by some 30 tons a day from projected levels for that year, and cutting petroleum usage by up to about 7 percent. This would give the program a good start and eventually make hydrogen cars dominant, eliminating an addtional 306 tons of smog-forming emissions. Benefit to Air: This could cut air pollution from today’s level by more than 20 percent, eliminating 336 tons a day.

TIGHTENING RULES, CLOSING LOOPHOLES Cleaner Factories: Southern California industries, from refineries to factories, still have not installed all of the pollution-control equipment that they should. AQMD has catalogued pollution controls that Southern California businesses can install, from refineries to farms, which could cut smog-forming emissions by at least 39 tons a day from today’s air-pollution levels if necessary rules were adopted and fully enforced. However, the schedule for adopting many of these rules has lagged. Even some that were first proposed in the late 1990s have only been adopted this year or have yet to be adopted. Benefit to Air: By AQMD’s own estimate, 39 tons a day, but expect even more. Tighten Emissions Trading: AQMD says it can eliminate three tons a day of smog-forming emissions from major power plants, refineries and factories by 2010 by tightening its emissions-trading program. However, the district has made tightening the standards a contingency measure in its cleanup plan. The district should not wait in an area where air pollution constitutes a public-health emergency. Every ton counts. Benefit to Air: AQMD estimates it would cut three tons a day. But they have every reason to be underestimating this one. Tighter State and Federal Standards: The Los Angeles area needs the California Air Resources Board to set tighter standards for diesel vehicles, construction equipment, diesel fuel, consumer products like aerosol cans and cleaning fluids, and other sources of pollution. Doing so could reduce smog-forming emissions by 122 tons per day by 2010. The federal EPA could set tight standards for locomotives and work more diligently to clean up ships and airplanes to achieve additional reductions. Benefit to Air: At least 122 tons a day would be cut, and more if EPA acts. Require Advanced Technology: AQMD could revise its rules to require that new electricity-production facilities run on solar energy or wind power where feasible. The state already is requiring utilities to purchase renewable power on behalf of their customers, and wind power is now often less expensive than power from burning natural gas. Meanwhile, in the summer, natural-gas plants run hard here in the region. In addition, the Legislature could require green buildings that use recycled materials, energy-efficient heat pumps powered by rooftop solar panels for heating and cooling, and other features to reduce emissions from factories making construction materials and power plants making electricity. There are many advanced technologies that could be employed to reduce smog-forming emissions by converting the region to renewable energy. Benefit to Air: Figure 62 tons could be spared through innovative planning. REDUCING AUTO USE & SPRAWL Eliminate Automotive Subsidies: The Federal Highway Administration estimates the social costs of driving — pollution, noise, crashes and congestion — at 18 cents a mile. Others estimate such costs may be twice as high. The state Legislature, counties and cities should move to eliminate the free ride for motorists in a nonregressive manner. Options include fees levied for vehicle miles traveled, with reduced fees for poor people or those who are responsible and choose hybrids and other extremely low-emission vehicles, collected through the annual auto-registration process. Free parking should be eliminated in the suburbs and in office parks. Fees should be imposed for driving into downtown areas at rush hour, as is now the case in London and other cities. The money should be used to fund public transit and redevelopment with low-income housing along transit lines. Benefit to Air: Depending on how imaginative we want to be, this could spur millions to sell their cars and avoid emitting 49 tons a day of pollution per million cars taken off the road, based on today’s emissions levels. Create a Regional Planning and Management Agency with Real Power: Greater Los Angeles has more people than 47 states, yet in many respects it’s governed like a series of small towns. Air-quality leaders should push the Legislature to create a regional planning and management agency similar to the Greater Vancouver Regional District that can enforce an integrated approach to environmental management. Benefit to Air: Expect a huge reduction of as much as 98 tons a day once this agency wrests power from small-time thinkers serving as county supervisors and city council members and eliminates the equivalent of 2 million cars a day from the roads. Rezone for Density: As painful as it may seem to historical preservationists, local governments along transit lines and in key downtown areas identified in regional plans should modify zoning laws to allow single-family home owners to build multi-unit housing structures on their properties. As long as population growth continues, sprawl will continue unless alternative locations are opened to housing development. Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia have done this and while they have lost many a Victorian house, they have gained cleaner air and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods with affordable housing, and they are much closer to developing a sustainable economy that does not require as much petroleum. Benefit to Air: It might not be the prettiest cure, but it could reap reductions of 98 tons a day as the housing market tightens. Create More Agricultural Preserves and Green Zones: The state Legislature, county boards of supervisors and major cities should designate farm preserves and champion bond measures to purchase and preserve as green zones the land surrounding the metropolitan area to eliminate places for sprawling development. Benefit to Air: Minimal at first, unless additional steps are taken to keep people from driving to these sanctuaries of urban beauty. Reform Property Taxes and Development Fees: A split-rate property tax that raises the tax on land and lowers the tax on structures could encourage density. Right now, property tax is levied mainly on the value of structures, while it is the underlying value of the land that increases real-estate prices. Lowering the tax on the improvements would encourage construction of more units per acre. This would result in a lower property-tax rate per unit and lower rents. Increasing the tax on land would increase taxes for those who use more land per housing unit. Also, developers should pay fees for the cost of the air pollution their projects generate, based on factors including location, density and mix of uses. Smart high-density developers would pay lower fees while traditional housing-tract developers would pay more. Benefit to Air: Smart development could eliminate the need for 5 million new cars as Southern California gains some 6 million new people, preventing 245 tons of pollution in the future, based on auto emissions at today’s levels. Autos will become cleaner, so this is no doubt an overestimate. De-pave L.A.: The region should use the money raised through such new fees targeting developers and motorists to de-pave Greater Los Angeles. That’s right, rip up pavement now devoted to the auto to create new spaces and accommodations for pedestrians, bicyclists and public-transit ways. Such an approach should be gradual, but ultimately will make living in dense areas more desirable, which will further diminish sprawl, auto-dependence and pollution. Benefit to Air: Coupled with renewable hydrogen-fueled cars for occasional use, this could cut air pollution from today’s levels by almost a third, or 481 tons a day, once people give up trying to find a parking spot. Additional emissions from making and selling gasoline would be eliminated too. NEW POLICY-ANALYSIS TOOLS Ecological Footprint and Gross Progress Indicator: Little of what’s recommended here will happen unless local politicians see the light, and that will require new analytical tools for the development of environmental, land-use and transportation policy. Whether a new regional planning agency with teeth is created or not, existing cities and agencies that deal with land use, transportation and other key decisions that affect air quality should make use of new analysis tools, developed by Redefining Progress, such as the gross progress indicator and ecological footprint index. Traditional cost-benefit and environmental-impact analysis have fallen short, part of the reason why air quality remains poor today. The GPI will redress their inadequacies by subtracting from the gross economic product of a region the cost of air pollution-related illness, loss of time and productivity because of traffic congestion, loss of farmland, global warming, consumption of nonrenewable resources and other impacts. It provides a more accurate yardstick of economic well-being. Likewise, the Ecological Footprint index could show policymakers how their decisions either move the region toward or away from long-term sustainability. Benefit to Air: Making politicians aware of planning tools could provide the foundation for carrying out these anti-sprawl measures and their tremendous pollution savings. Improving Public Participation: Facilitating broader and more effective public involvement in environmental management cannot be underestimated. With the help of the government of Canada, EnVision Tools Sustainability Inc. in Vancouver has created an innovative computer-based public-engagement process for regional planning that can determine the preferences of up to 100,000 people in a calendar year. People sit at computers in a “decision center” and make choices from a menu about what type of metropolitan area they would like to see in the future. The complicated computer model provides feedback on the likely consequences of their choices, including how they will affect such things as future air pollution, traffic congestion, taxes, proximity of services and energy use. On the basis of such feedback, many people in cities where it has been used, including Vancouver, come to prefer urban development to suburban development. The model — based on Sim City — is known as MetroQUEST, and it peers 40 years into an area’s future. Benefit to Air: Building a city that actually works and is responsive to people could cut pollution to acceptable levels.